STONINGTON — Leave it to a collection of plastic to help foster some genuine bonds.
That’s what happens on most Mondays in Nancy Sullivan’s classroom at Mystic Middle School. A small group of students crowd around a corner of her room-turned-container-deposit and figure out how many plastic water bottles they’ve collected in one day.
The bottles, most stuffed in garbage bags, will be redeemed for recycling deposits that the students will use to buy a tree for the school.
But students like Hannah Sherron, an eighth-grader, know that those bottles and this group of students signify a lot more.
“We’ve been collecting for a few months,” Hannah, 13, said. The project “has helped us to get to know everyone at the school. We help each other. Whether you’re a fifth-grader or an eighth-grader, we’re a family.”
Hannah is part of a Den, a small student group — multiage from grades five to eight — that meets every Monday for the final 30 or so minutes of the school day.
Dens were designed a year ago for the school’s more than 400 students to give them a voice, a sense of belonging and an avenue to develop positive relationships with adults and other students across all grade levels.
Teachers oversee the 33 Dens at the middle school and make sure students know they are important to the school and can make positive impacts.
“It’s much more comfortable in the building,” said Sullivan, a sixth-grade teacher and Den adviser. “Everyone has friends all over the place. The fifth-graders aren’t afraid of the eighth-graders anymore, and the eighth-graders are being leaders.”
According to a student survey, more than half of the students felt “somewhat” comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. More than half felt “somewhat” that students treated them respectfully.
Only 40 percent felt they were “somewhat” recognized at school for their accomplishments and 29 percent felt they were “somewhat” included at the school.
“We needed to make changes,” Principal Jennifer McCurdy said. The students, she said, “wanted to feel more ownership of their school. We wanted to create something that helped them interact and build relationships.”
Officials also thought Dens would address the individualized student success plans the state Department of Education started requiring of public school districts beginning in the 2012-13 school year.
Student success plans are meant to address each student’s needs and interests and help each student stay connected in school.
“Dens are fun,” eighth-grader Blake Edwards, 13, said. “It gets you away from stressful classes and give you time to relax and talk to people in other grades. Not only to you get to know them, but you end up getting to know their friends and helping their friends.”
Each Den is different, but each one has chosen one act that will make a positive difference at the school. Sullivan’s Den has pledged to recycle.
Dens have made a difference, Assistant Principal Jennifer Bausch said. “There’s a connectedness. It’s a small, comfortable setting. They do goal-setting and cover a wide range of topics.”
Bausch said the influence is wide-reaching. Fifth-graders, for example, are not only more comfortable in the school hallways, but on the bus.
Sixth-grade teacher Shauna Major said she’s seen a change in the eighth-grade students, as well.
“It’s nice seeing that as students move up they are more confident,” Major said. “Eighth-graders are being more leaders of the school.”
Fifth-graders Jackie Santacroce, 10, and Rachel Sabbadini, 11, adjusted to middle school more quickly because of their weekly Den meetings.
“It’s helped me become friends with more people older than me,” Jackie said. “And then they introduce you to everyone else.”
Added Rachel: “When you get to know some older kids they can help you out when you need it.”