The group of sixth-graders mostly was quiet until the balloons came out. They had talked and giggled a bit as Park Middle School eighth-graders Neo Navarro and Alejandra Sandoval led them through some games.
But chatter and laughter erupted as they worked to keep first one balloon -- then two -- up in the air, calling out the name of a student they'd just met as they bounced it in that direction.
"Ne ... Alejan ... Brennen," one boy stuttered as he struggled to remember names and keep the balloon in play.
"Don't let it hit the ground!" Neo, 13, said.
Kennewick schools open Tuesday. To get a running start, about 250 sixth-graders showed up at Park Middle School on Monday morning for a voluntary orientation session with 63 eighth-grade student leaders.
Park Middle School officials said the program, now in its fourth year, has gone a long way in easing the transition from elementary to middle school and reduced discipline issues at all grade levels.
For students, it's about connecting with others who are going through the same changes or have gone through them before.
"I wanted to come," said sixth-grader Brennen Silva, 11. "I thought it was fun because I got to meet people."
Almost 90 percent of the school's incoming sixth-graders attended the orientation this year, even though it's up to the students. They are drawn from nine elementary schools.
There are no formal lessons or programs. The whole day is about getting them acquainted with the school and what's expected of them before seventh-graders and most of the eighth-graders arrive.
"Sixth-grade is a really difficult transition," assistant principal Shaun Espe said. "We like to get them here first to get to know people and campus."
Teachers and administrators are in the building, but it's the eighth-grade student leaders who run the show -- leading activities, answering questions and giving tours.
Called WEB leaders, short for "Where Everyone Belongs," the selected eighth-graders applied for their jobs last spring. They had to write an essay and went through two days of training last week. They also have to attend weekly meetings through the school year.
The program has instilled pride in the school's students and helped cut back on bullying, Espe said. The extra work hasn't suppressed interest in the program by the older students.
"We had to turn 25 kids away," she said.
Alejandra said some sixth-graders are shy when they first arrive. One of the students in her group didn't have any of his friends at Park on Monday. She became a WEB leader because of the effect one had on her when she was a sixth grader.
"I needed help with my locker so they helped," the 13-year-old said. "They helped me come out of my shyness."
And while the eighth-graders answered questions about where classrooms were and why you shouldn't give your locker combination to anyone, most of the day was about students, many who hadn't ever met, getting to know one another.
"I think they really do like me," said sixth-grader Breanna Bella, 11. "They think I'm funny."
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