The Washougal School District and Unite! Washougal (Unite) are joining forces in an effort to make Washougal High School a safer, healthier place for students.
The school district and nonprofit organization have launched the Washougal High School Ambassador Program, which partners upperclassmen with freshmen and new students for peer mentoring and support.
“We know that the transition from eighth grade and middle school to ninth grade and high school is complex and challenging,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said. “Our ambassadors are the leaders in this school who have said, ‘Let us help.’”
Templeton said Unite is facilitating and growing students’ leadership skills “to create a warm and welcoming and safe environment for all students.”
Thirty-one upperclassmen, recommended to the program by WHS staff members, received training earlier this month, guided by Unite’s youth engagement coordinator, Xander Cook. During the training session, the students brainstormed ways to create an inclusive school environment by implementing an action plan to foster a sense of connection between the school and its students so that everybody feels welcome and involved as a Panther.
“I’m really optimistic and really excited (about the program),” Cook said. “During our first meeting with all of the ambassadors (earlier this month), the energy was just great. It was electric. They were so excited to be involved. It was really cool. I was a little bit demanding of the things that they are able to accomplish, and they were so excited to meet those demands. I’m really hopeful for the trajectory of this program and what they’re able to accomplish, and I hope this is something that can continue (for years to come).”
The program debuted during the 2022-23 school year, featuring one-on-one pairings of new students and “ambassadors.” It had its share of successes — a team of Washougal High ambassador representatives took second place out of 40 contestants at the Washington State Spring Youth Forum presentation competition, held May 10, in Grand Mound, Washington — but ultimately fell a bit short of Cook’s ultimate goals.
“We weren’t able to make all the connections last year in a way that I was really excited about,” Cook said. “We actually struggled to get enough freshmen interested in a mentor relationship, so if you do pairings and someone doesn’t get paired, what is this ambassador doing? What is their purpose in this group if they don’t have someone to be paired with? We had such amazing youth last year, and in some ways it was a little bit of a shame that we couldn’t utilize their expertise (and take advantage of the) amazing leaders that they were.”
At the end of the school year, Cook surveyed the upperclassmen about what they thought of the program and any changes they would make.
“They wanted to do stuff with the freshmen more,” he said. “They wanted a goal, they wanted to have a mission, and they wanted to be able to bring new students in and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing, can you help us with it?’ (This year), it’s less of a pairing, mentor relationship, and more of a, ‘Let’s create a group that does cool things, that does things we care about.’ So because of that (feedback), that’s what it looks like now. We have awesome youth, so I’m hoping I can give them enough resources and skills that they can engage in the work and work on some projects that make a difference.”
This year, the ambassadors have split into four teams “that have different objectives based on certain protective factors,” according to Cook.
“The recognition team, their whole goal is to make it so more people say, ‘I feel recognized within the school,’” Cook said. “There’s a team that is (focusing on) academics, and their primary purpose is to make sure that more students feel like they have the resources they need to pass their first-year classes at Washougal High. The new student liaison team (members) are checking in with students that are new to the school after the school year starts, spending time to make sure that they get integrated and feel connected. And we have an impact team that is collecting and reviewing data, and creating a campaign strategy to move those numbers (in a positive direction).”
The program has “a tremendous impact” on the younger students, according to Cook.
“They’re making such big decisions that can have really long-life altering effects, so everything that we do to steer kids into decisions that will lead to healthy outcomes is amazing,” he added. “Some of the data shows that students passing ninth-grade math are so much more likely to graduate. If we can get them through that, we’ve helped them so much in terms of their life trajectory. This moment, this year, this freshman year, is pivotal, based on some of some of the indicators that we’re looking at.”