Unlike other high schools in Santa Maria, Pioneer Valley High School's incoming freshmen were welcomed to the campus Wednesday with loads of games, costumes and hundreds of high-fives.
Organized by a handful of staff and 150 student mentors, the annual Link Crew orientation gave the newbies an inside look at life in high school — and how to survive — by those who mastered it: juniors and seniors.
"It breaks down the barrier between junior high and high school," explained Marcie Guerra, an agriculture instructor and one of three Pioneer Valley teachers who coordinate the program. "We want to create a stress-free environment by helping students make a connection with Pioneer Valley before we even start school."
Roughly 860 freshmen are expected to enroll at Pioneer Valley next week, the largest incoming class in school history.
Four years after entering Pioneer Valley High School as a “timid, confused freshman,” Gabriella Ramirez Camacho stood before the Class of 2019 prepared to leave as an independent member of society. Dressed in the traditional teal and black gowns, Friday’s ceremony honored graduates for their hard work, determination and contributions to the school and community.
Guerra said Link Crew will continue to hold events throughout the year, a way to ensure freshmen integrate into campus and build bonds with their upperclass leaders.
When the games and activities that kicked off Wednesday's half-day orientation were over, freshmen and Link Crew leaders broke off into 52 separate groups, donned homemade costumes and set off for campus tours and question-and-answer sessions.
"It's just students at that time, which is really awesome," said Guerra, who stressed that staff are not allowed to accompany them during that portion of the orientation. "They learn things that only other students can tell them: where to hang out, how to get food and advice to do well in class."
Jalen Yap, who promoted from Tommie Kunst Junior High School, spent his afternoon touring the campus with a group of classmates all dressed as ghosts from the "Pac-Man" video game.
John Beck has taken over for former veteran PV football coach John Ruiz and has installed a new spread offense and a 3-3-5 defense that the Panthers will use in their season opener vs. Oxnard on Friday, Aug. 23.
Yap has high hopes for his first year: He wants to make the school's varsity football team and vie for a position as a starting running back.
"We're excited to start school and try out," said Yap, who attended the orientation with three friends and former teammates.
While making the team may be difficult, it's not an improbable dream for the quartet, who were part of the Santa Maria Rebels youth football team that won back-to-back championships in the Central Coast Youth Football League Super Bowl tournament.
He called Wednesday's orientation helpful, especially since his Link Crew leader explained how to try out for sports and where the school's locker rooms are.
Daniel Ruiz was once a shy seventh-grader who didn’t like talking in front of classrooms at Tommie Kunst Middle School — until he enrolled in …
Diego Mendez, a senior and first-time Link Crew leader, credits his own orientation with helping him hit the ground running when school started.
"I took in all the information and it just clicked," he recalled. "It really helped a lot to learn where all my classes were. Without it, I would have just been lost."
Although the event is not mandatory, Guerra said more than 700 students — more than 80 percent of the anticipated freshman class — chose to participate in the program.