By Donald Wittkowski
Looking somewhat bewildered, dozens of freshmen at Ocean City High School walked outside Friday and were greeted by a raucous scene of upperclassmen waving signs and calling out their names.
“Hey, Tommy. Over here,” one of the older students shouted to a freshman who appeared nervous.
But fear not. The newbies were not being picked on by the high school juniors or seniors. In fact, it was just the opposite.
Each year, the incoming freshmen are welcomed by the upperclassmen in what is basically a daylong get-together that helps the younger students make an easier transition from middle school to high school.
“This is our way of showing all of our students that they belong in school, have friends, are connected and are not alone,” Ocean City Superintendent of Schools Kathleen Taylor explained.
Known as Freshman Teambuilding Day, the orientation combines friendship, problem solving, academics, entertainment, pop culture, athletics and social consciousness. An anti-bullying component is included.
Chris Clark, a high school teacher and co-adviser for the teambuilding activities, noted that it can be overwhelming at times for freshmen who are just 14 or 15 years old to suddenly blend in with upperclassmen who are 17 or 18.
He said teambuilding day exposes younger students to the upperclassmen in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. The older students, in turn, serve as mentors for the freshmen to help guide them through what will be a host of new academic and social challenges as they enter high school, Clark said.
“It’s another friendly face in the hallway,” he said.
Both Clark and Taylor believe Ocean City’s teambuilding day is the biggest and most comprehensive freshman-orientation program among South Jersey high schools. Ocean City has been doing it for more than 10 years.
“I’ve never seen anything like it to this extent in this area,” Clark said.
In the past, the high school originally tried using traditional classroom instruction to help the freshmen acclimate to a whole new environment, but later discovered it was more effective to expose them to more unconventional teambuilding methods.
For instance, one highlight for the freshmen Friday was a hip-hop show in the high school auditorium. Performers from the Philadelphia-based group Hip Hop Fundamentals performed new and old-school breakdancing moves while mixing in history lessons about hip-hop culture.
HHF is an educational consultant that uses music and dance as “an inspiration and academic tool,” according to the group’s website. During their show, the HHF performers called students on stage to teach them the latest steps, slides and spins that are part of the hip-hop and breakdancing repertoire.
This year, 330 freshmen participated in the teambuilding program. They were joined by 170 juniors and seniors, 30 teachers and some members of the Ocean City police and fire departments.
Alanna Palombo, a 17-year-old senior from Upper Township, recalled her first few tentative days in high school as a nervous freshman.
“It’s absolutely nerve-wracking to walk in the first day and not know where your classes are or where your classmates are,” she said. “It’s very intimidating and scary.”
On Friday, Palombo was one of the upperclassmen who were befriending the freshmen and helping them make the adjustment to high school life. She remembered that teambuilding day was an important part of her transition to high school when she was a freshman.
“It was definitely helpful,” said Palombo, who is well-known in the high school as a cheerleader and the first runner-up in the Miss Ocean City Pageant in August.
Part of Friday was spent at the high school stadium for a series of athletic-style teambuilding exercises between the freshmen and upperclassmen. As they ventured outside heading to the stadium, the freshmen were welcomed by dozens of boisterous – yet friendly – sign-toting upperclassmen who shouted out their names.
“This is pretty cool,” said 14-year-old freshman Jacob Stryker, of Ocean City, as he surveyed the raucous scene. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Jacob Stryker had good reason to feel at ease. His 17-year-old brother, Paulie, a senior, was one of the upperclassmen who greeted the freshmen.
Paulie Stryker said he would watch over his little brother. At the same time, he noted that he wanted all of the freshmen to know that they were welcomed at the high school.
“I just hope to show them what a great school this is,” Paulie Stryker said. “It really gives them a sense of community at school. It’s hard to believe, but it was only a few years ago when I was in their footsteps.”