Comstock Park — The new LINKS program at Mill Creek Middle School gives eighth-grader Lilly Czypera the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a classmate.
This is the second year for the LINKS program, a peer-to-peer support program that pairs a general education student with a student with special needs. About 30 students with Individual Education Plans are paired with those who apply to be part of the program and receive course credit.
“I love to help people,” Lilly said. For one hour a day she sits with classmate Dallas Gonzales in his eighth-grade math class to help him stay on track and motivated, build his confidence and keep up his grades.
“I like helping him feel excited when he gets good grades,” Lilly said. She said it’s important to get to know her peer and become friends in order to help him.
Elizabeth Brown, resource room teacher, said having a LINK in the classroom sitting beside students provides support when they can’t have a special education teacher with them. The goal of LINKS is to encourage personal growth, improve grades and increase social interaction. LINKS help with class assignments, keep peers on task and model social skills.
Evidence of Success
Brown has witnessed the changes since the program was implemented last year.
“Peers have experienced improved grades, peer relations, attendance, self confidence, self-advocacy to name a few,” Brown said. She said one of the peers last year was shy and quiet and almost never interacted with teachers and other students. By the end of the year he was smiling, talking and showed a lot of self confidence.
Amy England, sixth grade language arts teacher, said the LINKS help students understand directions, give guidance on assignments and encourage them to ask questions.
“The benefits of this program are enormous. It has been wonderful to see the students working together and gaining self confidence,” England said. “I enjoy watching the interactions between the LINKS and peers in the classroom, and outside the classroom as well.”
Casey Getter, another resource room teacher, said one student exited from special education after receiving support from a LINK.
“He just needed that extra push to build some confidence, which his LINK was able to provide him,” Getter said. She said one student who had a LINK partner this year and last year may soon become a LINK himself.
Growth & Support
Getter said teachers aren’t just seeking the “brainiacs” and straight -A students to be LINKS. One of the program’s goals is for the LINKS “to see themselves as the leaders that they are,” she said.
LINK applications have increased by one-third from the first year to the second year.
“Kids want to be involved. They want to make a difference, if we just give them the opportunity,” Brown said.
Brown said district administrators played a crucial role in seeing a need and giving resource room teachers the opportunity to explore the program.
“Anytime we can build student-to-student relationships with academic improvement, it is a win-win for students,” said Gus Harju, principal of Mill Creek Middle School.
The LINKS program originated from Grand Valley State University’s START project. After a visit to Byron Center High School to see their LINKS program, Comstock Park established their own version.
Brown said the greatest challenge was starting the program during a pandemic with its mix of virtual, hybrid and in-person learning. A lot of work went into building the master schedule to accommodate students in different grades and schedule requirements. It also took time to pair students, she said, matching personalities with the right combination of strengths and weaknesses. She said the program is hoped to expand to ninth- and 10th-graders to serve as LINKS for eighth-graders.