The middle school years can be difficult for any pre-teen. Bodies are changing. Hormones are raging. Kids are discovering who they are.
It can be brutal. But middle schools are joining forces with Tucson's nonprofit Ben's Bells to help combat these rough years.
Secrist Middle School, 3400 S. Houghton Road, recently installed a Ben's Bells "Be Kind" mural as the culmination of its efforts to be a "Kind Campus."
The idea to involve Secrist in the kindness movement started with Cheryl Norwood, a school guidance counselor. Norwood, who co-sponsors the National Junior Honor Society on campus with Lucinda Marcello, a seventh-grade language arts teacher, proposed the idea to the club.
According to Jeannette Maré, Ben's Bells executive director, any school or organization can participate in the Kind Campus program. It's free, but each school must have an adult who can act as a "kindness coordinator." This person acts as a liaison between Ben's Bells and the school, and makes sure the program is working effectively.
At Secrist, Junior Honor Society members promoted the kindness program by distributing "kind coins" and "kind bracelets" to students who demonstrated kindness. Acts of kindness could include anything from holding open a door from someone else to reaching out to a student in need.
Students were also nominated for demonstrating extraordinary kindness, and each quarter a Ben's Bell - a decorative handmade bell - was awarded to a student.
Honor Society members sold muffins to raise money for the mural. With the help of the PTA and the student council, they raised $1,000.
Abby Pennix, an eighth-grader and a representative of the National Junior Honor Society, said she's seen a change in students since the Kind Campus initiative was implemented.
"The program represents what we want our school to be and how we want our kids to act," she said. "It's changed how we talk to people and how we talk to adults."
For Destiny Zaragoza, an eighth-grader and president of the school's NJHS chapter, that change in communication was a critical component of the kindness program. Zaragoza said now she enjoys talking with her teachers and finding out more about their lives, and her classmates are doing the same. It starts, she said, with a simple "good morning."
Although the program has positive effects, it's not a magic elixir.
"There is still girl drama - girls talking about other girls - and boys do fight," Pennix said. "But the program is helping us stop and think about what we're going to do. It's definitely gotten better."
In regard to bullying incidents, Norwood, the guidance counselor, said now there's more emphasis on the positive rather than the negative.
"In the halls, instead of kids saying, 'They're being a bully,' they're saying, 'Be kind.' I know I use that word more, and I think the faculty does, too," she said.
Teacher Marcello hopes the program will help students who are transferring to Secrist next year. Many will come from Carson Middle School, which is closing.
Although the influx will be challenging, Marcello said, she doesn't doubt the power of the Kind Campus program. "I think the whole 'be kind' thing is really strengthening relationships around the school," she said. "It's creating a culture of kindness. "
Scarlett McCourt is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at 573-4117 or email@example.com