Creating a safe space for incoming freshmen


Initiatives like McKinley High's Ignition Program provide peer mentoring and support to ensure students succeed in 9th grade, which can be a challenging transition. These efforts statewide are paying off, with numbers of student misconduct offenses and suspensions dropping.


Do you remember that first day of high school? The nerves about how big the school was? Worries about how much harder it would be, and where you'd fit in with the upperclassmen?

Fortunately, upperclassmen at many high schools in Hawai'i kākou the newbies through mentoring. At McKinley High, for example, the Ignition Program recruits juniors and seniors to make those first crucial connections with freshmen, provide needed support and, where the conditions are right, be a friend.

The Hawaii State Department of Education as a whole is refocusing on major student transitions, from elementary to middle to high school, and also from grade to grade. Ninth grade has been a particular focus, because many students shifting into the final phase of secondary education struggle with the change, resulting in increased absences, dropouts and disciplinary incidents. Schools have ramped up their grade 9 supports, from schools creating smaller learning environments such as 9th Grade Academies and peer mentoring programs like Ignition.

The effort is paying big dividends. Student misconduct incidents and suspensions are down across all grades statewide, as well as in that challenging 9th grade. Statewide data show from 2011-12 to 2015-16:​

STUDENT MISCONDUCT (Class A, B, C & D incidents — learn more​)

  • A 20% decrease in student misconduct incidents across all grades
  • A 13% decrease in student misconduct incidents in 9th grade


  • A 39% decrease in suspensions across all grades
  • A 29% decrease in suspensions in 9th grade

On the Friday before school began, a training session was held in McKinley High's auditorium for the Ignition program's new mentors. Junior Kenny Son said the Ignition program gave him a foundation when he needed it and he wanted to give back. "I didn't come from this district, I didn't know anyone," he said. "Now, I'm really good friends with my Ignition class."

Program coordinator Lisa Panquites walked about 60 student-trainees through the basics, and while it's not complicated training, the more you listen to it, the more it resonates in our light-speed world:

  • "Mentors cannot be seen as 'don't talk to me' kind of people. When you wear your earphones or you're buried in your phone, that's the message you're sending."
  • "SMILE."
  • "It's so much easier to connect with someone you have something in common with. So get a discussion going about music, or the best movie you saw this summer, or your favorite dessert… or Pokemon!"
  • "When they reveal something important about themselves, remember it. That builds trust."

The trainees are given ideas about how to crowd control and manage noise — "assign the distracting kids a task, find their strength," Panquites said — and how to get energy levels going on a Monday. Step One is to eliminate distractions, so mentors are instructed to have everyone put electronics in their bags, and their bags in the center of the group circle. They're given protocols if they encounter students who may be seriously hurting to refer them to teachers who can intervene without violating that safe avenue of concern and care with their peer mentor. "You're not here to be disciplinarians or teachers."

The key to being a good mentor? Patience. "Everything takes time, don't force anything out of them," Panquites said.

This prompted one returning mentor to reflect on a freshman who wasn't engaging with him or the group. "He was just avoiding me, and then one day I brought extra cookies. Next time I saw him, he said hi. You never know what's going to reach them."

Student mentors are paired with seven or eight freshmen each, and Day One starts with simple bonding activities. Then every month, during a scheduled half-hour of school, the freshmen and their mentors continue to meet for informal talks about their shared passions and interests, especially those activities they can join at school — band, chorus, ROTC, football games — to help get them involved in campus life. Mentors also meet one-on-one with their freshmen, either at lunch or after school, to see how they're doing and continue to build trust.

Senior Giorgio Tran is returning to mentor for a second year. "In the beginning, there were some who were quiet," said Tran. "But as the year progressed and they got used to each other, some of them formed friendships that are lasting still."

Ignition doesn't stop at graduation, either. Among the trainees was a pair from the Class of 2016, "Junior Advisors" Maria Barayuga and Nicole Acasio (pictured, right), helping the Ignition trainees get up to speed. "It's a good leadership experience and a good way to stay connected to the school," Barayuga said.

The Junior Advisors were working with a breakout group of trainees voicing their support for the program, and the advice they offer to the incoming freshmen:

"One day you're a freshman, the next you'll walk across the Oval. Make the most of it."

"Participate in activities, it's never too early to start making memories."

"For the freshmen, it's good to have someone guiding you. Better to have your questions answered from a friend rather than a guidance counselor."

"It gives you hope that you can make friends."

Contact Information

Communications Office

Phone: 808-586-3232


How do I...?


View all FAQ's