Link Crew student leaders prepare for new role

Story and photos from the Westerville City School District –

The inaugural group of Link Crew student leaders across Westerville’s high schools took their first steps learning how they can help support the newest members of their school community.

On Thursday, students across Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South high schools connected with each other through team-building and ice-breaker activities as well as several games of tag — the same games they will manage when they welcome next year’s freshmen to school in the fall.

“Today is about starting to build relationships amongst themselves and experience the success of this program,” said Assistant Principal Tyler Holmes, who along with physical education and health teacher Josh Hageman, serve as Link Crew coordinators at WCHS.

The district is launching Link Crew, a year-long transition program that provides a structure in which freshmen can make real connections in high school, this fall. Much like the sixth-grade only first day of school at the middle schools, the high schools are kicking off the start of the 2024-25 school year with a ninth-grade only first day where Link Crew student leaders will connect with a group of freshmen they’ll support throughout the year.

Studies show that students who succeed in their freshman year, particularly in their first quarter, are far more likely to excel throughout high school.

The program is a familiar one; It hails from The Boomerang Project — the same educational consulting company behind the Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) program at all of the district’s middle schools.

The WEB program, which started at Blendon Middle School in 2017 before rolling out to the other middle schools the following year, supports the transition of sixth-graders to their new environment. WEB leaders provide support throughout the year, whether it’s giving campus tours to new students, tutoring those who are struggling academically or visiting classrooms to lead discussions on time management, teamwork and other life skills.

The Westerville Education Challenge, which raises awareness and supports social-emotional learning initiatives in the district, provided funds to bring the WEB program to all middle schools. The group also covered costs to support the Link Crew program.

The addition of the Link Crew program further builds the work being done in the middle schools, said Anne Baldwin, director of secondary schools.

“We know that when you come from middle school to high school, it’s a larger place and you can feel lost,” she said. “This is our way to help transition those kids into high school and also to provide leadership opportunities for our juniors and seniors as well.”

“We know we have a lot of untapped talent amongst our students and this gives them a chance to develop their leadership skills and connect and build a community in our schools.”

Staff members recommended students for the Link Crew, with about 90 to 100 rising juniors and seniors serving as leaders at each high school. They represent different populations of the school’s student body — athletes, Hope Squad leaders, band members, English Learner students.

On Thursday, they gathered together for their first exposure to the program. At WCHS, members of the Link Crew coordinating team — Holmes, Hageman, science teacher Bryce Cromer, English teacher Paige Fritz, counselor Mackenzie Strubel and English teacher Kelly Kratofil — led students through several of the games they will be leading with their freshmen groups in the fall. They led discussions with students to review school rules and culture as well as what freshmen may need to know at the start of high school.

In addition to this week’s gathering, student leaders will go through Link Crew training over the summer to prepare for their new role.

Junior Mia Smith recalled having her older sister help her settle into her new surroundings at WCHS as a freshman. She hopes to bring that “big sister energy” to her group of ninth-graders as a Link Crew student leader.

“It’s really nice to be a part of a group that will help freshmen ease their minds going into something that is super chaotic and it will be a great turning point in their lives,” she said.

For junior Elliana Jacob, being able to serve as WCHS’ inaugural group of Link Crew student leaders is an honor.

“I know coming into a big school can be super intimidating,” she said. “You’re still getting to know people grades above you let alone your own grade… This is a really great way to make new friends, connect and see familiar faces.”

Sophomore Symone Smith is all too familiar with the structure of the Link Crew program; she was a WEB leader at Genoa Middle School. The connections she made with the sixth-graders she served still linger today.

“I see my kids all the time in Westerville,” she said. “I can’t stress enough how exciting it is to see their faces and to see how they are doing.”

She is looking forward to serving as a Link Crew student leader and providing the same support to ninth-graders — who just happen to be the same class that were sixth-graders when she was a WEB leader.

“I really can’t wait to help these freshmen because I know I was lost and I was scared,” she said. “I think this is bigger than ourselves. We are going to make a difference.”