For more than three decades, George Walton Academy has worked to forge bonds between its oldest students and some of its youngest students.
Each year, the senior class at the private school pairs up with first graders, usually bonding two seniors with one younger pupil. The groupings foster friendship and a mentor relationship between the two age groups and, as the program has developed over time, it has become ever more expansive.
“We started it about 32 years ago,” Linda Smith, director of counseling services for GWA, said. “It’s a tradition we established then and have kept up and it’s become one of our most exciting one.s
“The seniors become role models for that child. Elementary schoolers already tend to look up to older students. This emphasizes, through the bonds they form, that we are one school.”
The program is made easier for GWA than for some schools, given both first and 12th grade share one roof, but directly combining the two generations makes for bonds that sometimes last for years.
“It builds a rapport and helps cement relationships,” Smith said. “The older students really bond with the younger ones. It’s a relationship that can go on their entire lives.”
When the program first began, decades earlier, the program mainly manifested around the school’s annual Christmas program. Each year, the seniors would decorate a short Christmas tree for their chosen first graders and present it to them at the holiday event.
Kim Gunnin, a fifth grade teacher at GWA, is also an alumnus of the private school and think she is part of only the second senior class to participate in the long-running tradition.
“When we did it, it was mostly just the Christmas tree,” Gunnin said. “Yet I still remember my first grader. I run into him every so often out in the Conyers area and we still say ‘Hello’ to one another.”
Gunnin’s two sons, however, participated in the program much more recently, in 2011 and 2014 respetively, and the program had expanded drastically by then.
“They met them at different times for various events,” Gunnin said. “They had breakfast with them and met with them at holiday events. It’s just snowballed year after year. It’s neat to see it continue and watch it come full circle. They enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun for them.”
On Wednesday, the school’s 74 seniors met with the 35 first graders. Most of them paired up, two seniors for each single younger child, with only a handful of one-on-one match-ups. Some pairings involved siblings or cousins mentoring a younger child. Some were unisex, others were mixed gender. All were excited to meet the child with whom they would bond for a year or even longer.
“The seniors pick a first grader from a list of rising first graders right after the previous senior class has graduated,” Smith said. “It can be a bit complicated geting all the matches organized, but they’re happy with any child they get.”
At the first meet-and-greet this past week, the seniors presented their first graders with a bag of crackers and other goodies, discussed interests and shared feelings, took pictures together and worked to forge the first thread of their fledgling bond.
It can grow rather quickly, Smith said.
“The seniors will go to their first graders’ ball games, they’ll be invited to birthday parties. We had a student graduated recently and their senior from 11 years earleir came back to watch them receive their diploma.
“Both my girls started here and they still each have their Christmas trees given by their seniors.”
Kevin Cloud, lower school principal for GWA, said it was a great tradition for al involved.
“It’s a huge day for our first graders,” Cloud said. “The seniors quickly become their heroes.”
The students meeting on Wednesday enjoyed their first day together.
“We have been so excited,” Danielle Murphy said of meeting their first grader, Ryver Bailey. “It’s probably one of the best parts of senior year.”
Her partner, Clair Rowan, agreed.
“We’ve really been looking forward to this.”
Six-year-old Ryver, on the other hand, was mostly excited for another reason.
“They brought me a bag of Goldfish and a drink,” she said.
Noah White and Torey Zanders were also pleased to meet their first grader, Caleb Eubank, 6.
“It’s exciting,” Zanders said.
“It’s cool,” he said. “We’ve been talking aboug soccer.”
White said the bond would come as they go along.
“We’ll be spending more time with him,” he said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”