Jeremy Ranch Elementary School helps students mediate problems
Aaron Ibarra’s transition to Jeremy’s Ranch Elementary School from Mexico was not as smooth as his family and the school’s teaching staff hoped. The fifth-grader started getting in trouble, and one day had an incident with a younger student that would have lead him to the principal’s office. Instead, he was brought into a room with the child he argued with, along with two other students. At the end of the conversation, Ibarra left shaking the student’s hand and the two promised to be friends.
The Peer Mediation Program trains fifth-grade students to serve as mediators after conflicts between students of all ages at Jeremy Ranch. Wendy St. James, a guidance counselor at the school, introduced the program three years ago.
She first adopted the program while working at a high school and middle school, but thought that she could figure out a way to alter it for younger kids.
“I decided I wanted to try it with some fifth-graders, and they took to it,” she said. “They were really excited to help other kids.”
She has about 30 “Spirit Kids” in the program who tutor, help recycle and are trained in peer mediation. Each week, they meet to learn skills or do their “jobs” throughout the school. Leslie Czerwinski, a school therapist with Park City School District, and Gretchen Lee from Mountain Mediation Center came to the school to offer training for the students last fall.
St. James said that the program fits well with Jeremy Ranch’s vision, which is to reduce punitive action in the school. Instead of giving office referrals, students talk through their problems.
“The whole point of mediation is to repair the harm that was caused and to get kids to take accountability for their part of the problem,” she said. “It’s very solution focused rather than blame oriented.”
If two or more students are getting into conflicts, St. James asks them and their parents if they want to do a mediation meeting. She selects two fifth-grade students, and they all gather in the conference room.
From there, the mediators take over. They invite the students to individually talk about the issue while they all listen. After the other shares, they must repeat each other’s story to show that they understood. Then, the mediators ask if any solutions have come to mind or if they should brainstorm together. Once a solution is agreed to by both parties, they sign a contract.
“At the end, the kids don’t have to be best buddies, but they have to sign an agreement saying, ‘I agree to sit in a different spot on the bus,’ or ‘I agree to not say mean things,’” St. James said.
But some kids did end up becoming friends, such as Ibarra. Before the mediation, he and the other student were constantly at odds. He said that it felt good to walk away as friends.
Kevin Moras and Gabe Villanueva, the fifth-grade mediators, said that it was nice to see kids leave happy.
“It helps students get back together and solves their problems,” Villanueva said. “It can help them be better in the future.”
They all agreed that they are better equipped to handle problems in the future now.
While St. James admitted that it was tricky adapting her mediation program from high school-aged teens to elementary students, she has also been impressed by their ability to listen to problems rather than try to solve them immediately.
“They’re incredible with the kids,” she said. “Even if there is some awkwardness during, they usually reach a solution.”
And for the most part, it does make a difference, St. James said. Only once have students had to return and revisit their contracts.
As for the student mediators, she said that they learn valuable skills such as empathy and how to actively listen. They are able to serve their fellow schoolmates and make friends along the way.
“I learned that talking to someone and expressing your feelings is useful in many ways,” Villanueva said.
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The Park City Board of Education is on track to place a bond on the ballot this fall to improve district facilities. The top priorities would be to put ninth grade in the high school, eighth grade in the middle school and to augment preschool offerings by expanding elementary schools.