Erasing the lines between athletes and actors
HIGHLANDS RANCH--Jake Hesse admits he was a little judgemental and hesitant with other classmates when he arrived at ThunderRidge High School in 2012.
“When I was a kid, I was picked on,” says Hesse. “People didn’t like me for being ‘the goofy guy’, it’s something that I tried to hide until I got here.”
Bullying often stems from misunderstandings between various social circles, but ThunderRidge has taken steps to try and erase the lines that separate those cliques. That’s where “Seminar” comes in.
Every student at ThunderRidge participates in Seminar. Each seminar group-- made up of approximately 25 students each-- is made up of a diverse cast of high schoolers with different interests and personalities. These groups, which meet twice a week during the school year, stick together with the same Seminar teacher through the entirety of their high school experience. They grow and learn from one another through classroom activities like trivia competitions, planning holiday parties and even getting together for movies during weekends and holidays.
Over the last four years, Hesse’s perspective has changed a lot.
“I can trust anyone in seminar with any secrets I have, because we all trust each other.” He says. “We respect each other for their differences.”
Jordan Arnell is one of those classmates Hesse says he can trust. She joined his Seminar group late, transferring to ThunderRidge her sophomore year.
“I think normally, moving schools could have been difficult,” she says, “but my seminar was always very open, and I found friends in there pretty quickly.”
Arnell embraced the Seminar concept, even taking a leadership role with her group. As a Sources of Strength Peer Leader, she acts as a shoulder to lean on for the other students in her seminar; someone to talk to for emotional support, should they need it. She says she has seen seminar help students break through the barriers that develop between typical social groups at schools.
“I think it does help honestly,” says Arnell. “Chances are you’re friends with someone in seminar who is friends with a wider group of people, and that kind of mitigates the threat of those different groups, because you have someone that knows you and someone that kind of keeps everybody safe.
But does it help curb bullying?
“I would say so,” says ThunderRidge freshman Joe Radochonski. “I have a kid in my seminar who did get bullied a little bit, but now that he is more open and meeting new people, he’s definitely escaped some of that.”
Radochonski is an athlete, and says that coming into high school he primarily made friends with other school sports stars. That’s beginning to change this year with seminar.
“I don’t spend a lot of time with folks that do, say, theatre,” he says. “ We just don’t have a lot of activities together, but there are a lot of kids that do that in my Seminar and it’s given me a chance to see what they like to do and who they are.”
Thunder Ridge Psychologist Tim Farrow believes the program is going even further than mitigating bullying.
"I do think seminar is a huge reason for the school's great culture and a significant protective factor against suicide for our students," Farrow says.
“Seminar has been the cornerstone of ThunderRidge High School since we opened,” added Seminar Coordinator, Joe Ortiz. The school opened in 1996.
Olivia Holland is the lead for Radochonski’s seminar. She’s been teaching French at ThunderRidge for four years, and just graduated her first Seminar group last year. She says the experience has had a tremendous impact on her.
“I think of these kids as my children, I get them for the next four years,” says Holland. “I get to watch them grow into young adults, graduate, apply for college-- it’s awesome.”
Holland has gone even further with her involvement in Seminar, joining the Seminar Committee that helps guide the direction of the program. Her hope is that Seminar will continue to develop social skills that will make the students ready to tackle the world waiting for them after graduation.
“I think Seminar is definitely preparing them for life after high school, whether it’s college or the workforce, on how to deal with people who may not have their same interests, and be able to support people on a day-to-day basis,” says Holland.
For the seniors like Hesse that are about to graduate this spring, now is a time to reflect on where Seminar has taken not only their group, but how it has impacted them as individuals. His junior year, he discovered a new passion when he was convinced by his Seminar peers and his teacher leader to audition for a school play. He was cast in the lead role, and hasn’t looked back since.
“That was one of the most memorable experiences I have had here at ThunderRidge, and ever since then I’ve auditioned for every show.”
For the freshman like Ellie Sinclair, it’s about wondering how Seminar will continue to shape the lives of her group over the next three years.
“We all wrote letters to our future selves, and we’re going to read them our senior years, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how we’ve all grown together.”