Not so lonely on the high-school food chain anymore

COSTA MESA — Every fall, incoming freshmen must navigate an often uneasy passage from middle school to high school

They are dropped into a new environment and have to adjust to new teachers and a new system, all while trying to survive the bottom of the high-school food chain.

But Estancia High School has a mentoring program to help make that transition less scary and difficult by having upperclassmen take newcomers under their wing. From before the start of freshman year until sophomore year, each freshman is assigned a junior or senior for guidance through the change.

The program has had such an impact on the early high-school experience of freshmen that many students become inspired to give back. When they go on to become juniors or seniors at Estancia, they sign up to mentor members of their school's next freshmen class.

"I just wanted to help the kids start out a good high-school career," said first-year mentor and senior George De La Torre, 18.

Torre and 43 other upperclassmen spend an hour each week helping a small group of freshmen with academic assistance, and showing them how to get involved in sports, clubs and take the college-bound path, said school counselor Rhonda Reid, who oversees the program.

Each mentor is assigned four to five freshmen.

"I think the program's really great because when you come as a freshman, it's really hard because you're at the bottom," said freshman Eva Charidas, 14. "When you go to high school you get kind of lost … and they kind of guide you along."

The freshman mentor program is in its fifth year. Already, the school has seen changes around campus.

The other four high schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District also have some sort of mentoring program in place, said Laura Boss, the district's spokeswoman.

Reid said there are many factors at play, but since the program's inception, the number of failing grades at Estancia is down, and school spirit and involvement has improved.

The mentors take real ownership of their freshmen, said Reid.

Senior Jim Nelson, 18, said he gets his students' grades sent daily to his phone so he can check to see if they are keeping up with or have been missing assignments.

Nelson, a second-year mentor, said it was his freshman mentor who motivated him to get into the program.

"I was hoping to be an inspiration like [she was] to others," he said.

Senior Vanessa Corona, 17, also said it was her freshman experience that made her want to give back.

Vanessa credits her mentor with pushing and encouraging her to try new things. Without it, she wouldn't have been as involved, she said.

To motivate her group of freshmen, the senior rewards them with candy when they do well on tests.

She was also planning a party for them to celebrate the recent end of their first semester.

"It definitely encourages them to work harder," she said. "It kind of brings their self-esteem up."

The mentors are also there to lend an ear and dole out advice when needed, De La Torre said.

He said he has given his freshmen advice on problems with their significant others, issues at home and has even talked one of them into staying in school.

Freshman Joey Sorensen, 16, said knowing he has someone older at school who cares about him has made his transition to high-school life less stressful.

"I know I can go to my mentor with anything," he said. "She's basically like a sister for me."

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