Akiba-Schechter has always been a school that values community. When students are part of a community, they feel part of something larger than themselves. This is a powerful feeling, because it encourages them to think more broadly about how their actions make an impact on others—promoting kindness, compassion, and a commitment to action.
One of the ways we create community at Akiba is through the Buddy Program. Roughly three years ago, when our enrollment numbers were on the rise, we wondered how we could maintain that warm, family atmosphere that is a hallmark of Akiba-Schechter’s education. How, we wondered, could we ensure that older students were still invested in the lives of their younger peers, and that younger students still looked up to the upperclassmen—encouraging them to be leaders? We knew that if we didn’t do something, we would lose something precious, unique, and almost impossible to recreate. So, the Buddy Program was born.
Mimicking our existing inter-age programs like multi-age classes, flexible ability-groupings, and middle school students teaching the preschoolers about various holiday events, we paired our students up with “buddies.” Third and 4th graders are each assigned a buddy in Kindergarten; and 6th through 8th graders are each assigned a buddy in 1st and 2nd grade. Usually, these buddy pairs remain the same for a two-year cycle. Together with their buddies, students participate in a medley of activities all throughout the year. On Rosh Chodesh, for instance (the beginning of the Hebrew month), older buddies pick up their younger charges from their classrooms and eat breakfast together with them. Before Chanukah, they make latkes and decorate the halls together. In the spring, they listen to their young buddies practice Hebrew reading. They even go roller skating together on Shushan Purim (the day after Purim). In return, the younger buddies make special good bye gifts for the 8th graders when they leave for their trip to Israel.
We all knew how reassuring it would be for 1st graders to hold an older buddy’s hand as they entered Loeb Hall, with over 100 children, to eat breakfast that first Rosh Chodesh of the year. What we didn’t anticipate was how beneficial being the older buddy was for our older students. Before we initiated the Program, our upperclassmen would tend to want to sit among their own age groups during Rosh Chodesh breakfasts. What 13-year-old wouldn’t? As older buddies, they became leaders for a younger cohort. In fact, when assigned their buddies for the year—a much-awaited and exciting moment—these older students ask all sorts of questions: “What will I say?”, “How can I make a 1st grader feel comfortable?”, “What if my buddy cries?” In essence, they’re thinking like adults. After each of the “buddy” events, not only do our 1st and 2nd graders look with adoring eyes at their older friends, but our 6th though 8th graders also stand a little taller.
Perhaps the best part of the Buddy Program is that top-down scheduled events have encouraged bottom-up, organic relationships between older and younger students, so that the fabric of our school—indeed, our community—is authentic, sustainable, and strong.