by Emily Smith
The Paducah Sun
May 10, 2019
Used with permission.
The transition from elementary to middle school can be scary for students.
From a new building to new classmates and a new curriculum, finding a niche or simply making a new friend can seem intimidating and nearly impossible for sixth-graders.
That's why three local students set out last year to make the adjustment more bearable -- and a lot more fun -- for fifth-graders preparing to start their middle school experience. Little did they know, their small project would make a big impact -- big enough to stand out on a statewide level.
The Paducah Pen Pal Project was one of three student-based efforts from across the commonwealth honored through a new initiative aimed at promoting education. On April 24, Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recognized the project and the students who created it, or have been involved with it.
Paducah Middle School sixth-graders Russell Hancock, Myrikal Boyd and Paige Dennis came together and imagined the idea for the project independently last year.
"The Pen Pal Project came about because we wanted to relieve some stress off the fifth-graders about going to middle school," Boyd said. "We wanted them to have at least one friend instead of having to meet all these new people, so they wouldn't be as nervous."
Hancock said the project begins in the second quarter of the school year, when students begin writing letters back and forth to each other until the last few weeks of school.
"The first letter is like, who we actually are, the second letter is about what we were afraid of for starting middle school, and the third one is about what we were excited about for middle school," Boyd said. "It was really fun."
At the end of the school year, pen pals have the opportunity to meet each other in person at a party in the Paducah Middle School gym, where students are placed into a group with their pen pal and compete against other groups to win games and prizes.
To participate in the Kentucky Department of Education's Student Ambassador Initiative, interested student groups submitted an "Intent to Participate" form, detailing an education-related community service project. Student groups then submitted a video highlight of their project, explaining its impact.
Lewis viewed submitted videos and hand selected the student groups that were honored.
"I didn't really understand how big it was until people from Louisville were coming in and they were some of the winners," Hancock said. "I thought that was pretty cool because we were up against some big people."
The students said they had the opportunity to shake the commissioner's hand in Frankfort.
"All of the student groups who participated are doing great things in their communities," Lewis said last month. "The students who are being honored today, however, have done amazing work emphasizing the importance of a high-quality education and how it can be transformational in a young person's life."
Dennis said Lewis told each group what he specifically liked about their projects.
"(Commissioner Lewis) said he liked that instead of it just helping our one school, it kind of helped the community of fifth-graders going to a whole other school," Dennis said.
Lewis also told Paducah Independent students that he liked how the project fostered inclusion, and encouraged students to stay in school, despite transition periods.
"The transition point from elementary to middle and middle to high school, that's where they lose a lot of students," group coordinator Mary Hunter Hancock said. "To do things like this encourages students to get more involved and stay in school."
Because there are more than 200 students in their eighth-grade class alone at Paducah Middle School, Hancock, Boyd and Dennis said they feel proud knowing they have made a difference in the lives of younger students.
"A lot of the fifth-graders came up to me and told me they actually enjoyed it, and that they weren't even scared to start middle school anymore," Dennis said. "We started a tradition."
Boyd said she feels good knowing she has helped students like her younger siblings.
"I definitely feel good, because I know my siblings who go to McNabb, they're really shy," Boyd said. "They don't talk, they don't like meeting new people, they don't like going to different schools, so I know it at least helped them feel better about going to middle school."