A welcome mat: Poudre High School smooths the way for new students

“Oops,” Poudre High School counselor Cassie Poncelow thought after she’d spent a short time working in a well-paid internship as an interior design student. “What am I doing here? This isn’t for me.”

She ended up hurrying through her internship as soon as possible and finding a job as a teacher’s aide, where the pay was poor but the work suited her so well that she returned to school for a counseling degree. She’s never looked back.

“Friends ask me why I work in the summer,” she said. “I tell them that running Sparks Summer Camp at Poudre High School is the most fun I have all year.”

In its second season, the camp is a two-week session for incoming ninth grade students who have been recommended by their middle school counselors. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day the group of 25 graduates of Cache La Poudre, Lincoln and Lesher
middle schools are introduced to the culture, expectations and physical layout of a school that serves more than 2,000 students.

They form relationships with each other. They take tests to determine their personalities and their strengths. A scavenger hunt becomes a fun way to learn their way around the school. And they have an opportunity to explore several different career paths by visiting local businesses, taking tours and asking questions. They have a good bit of fun as well getting involved with agricultural pursuits—feeding goats and harvesting basil.

“I tell them to keep an open mind,” Poncelow says, using herself as an example of someone who made a speedy career change when she discovered her passion.

On a visit to Columbine Health Systems, for example,the Poudre High School students-to-be heard the story of founder Bob Wilson who had a job doing maintenance for a nursing home and became so interested in the seniors who lived there that he became its administrator and bought the place when he was in his early 20s.

Today Columbine has grown into 22 businesses, the result of Wilson’s continuing passion for the work he does. The group of students then took a tour of the Columbine campus to see the housing options and learn about jobs in the health care system..

Participants in Sparks Summer Camp also will meet twice a month during the upcoming school year and will earn five credits for their continuing involvement with the group. They will come together to share experiences and hash out any problems they encounter as they adjust to their new school. Their counselors will keep track of their progress in class and be in a position to head off problems before they escalate.

Poudre High School also has an Ambassadors program designed to mentor incoming students. Juniors and seniors apply for 45 Ambassador positions and over the time they serve, they receive 100 hours of training. “It’s students mentoring students,” Poncelow says, “and it really works.”

Each Ambassador mentors a group of six or seven students who they meet with every other week, giving up their free hour to guide the students through a 14-week curriculum. Topics range from suicide to goal-setting, sexual abuse, teen dating and stress management. They play games and enjoy each other as well. “Suggestions are more meaningful when they come from peers,” Poncelo said.

The Ambassadors plan events, such as a hug day and a kindness day at school, and last year sponsored a Mental Health Matters forum with 20 speakers that drew 400 participants. The Ambassadors group has become a nationally recognized program and has been part of an international bullying prevention conference held last year in Denver.

An innovation grant, part of a school bond issue, has allowed Poudre High School to initiate a Community Collaborative Pathways Program giving students an in-depth look at career areas ranging from entrepreneurship, agriculture and natural resources, arts and humanities, health sciences and human services, engineering and design and international baccalaureate.

Counselors are assigned to students in each interest area. In little white Poudre High School buses dubbed “career cabs,” counselors chauffeur students to different places of business to learn about their career options. Students end up knowing fellow students who share their interests, furthering the exchange of information and nurturing small social groups within the larger school environment.

“There’s a lot going on at Poudre High School,” Poncelow said. “I’m so lucky to have this job.”

Wherever they come from, students embarking on their high school career at Poudre will find a friendly welcome and counselors and Ambassadors available to make their transition as smooth as possible.

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