Growing Up Together: MMS Mentoring Program Matures

The Mount Madonna School (MMS) graduating class of 2013 and the current third grade class have a special story to tell together. They are the first two classes who have maintained a mentoring relationship across divisions for three consecutive years.

High school science teacher Lisa Catterall and third grade teacher Hamsa Heinrich began discussing the idea six years ago and thought it would be interesting to get their students together to study science and the environment. Over time, this program proved popular, and other MMS elementary teachers contacted Catterall about participating.

Now, each MMS tenth grader meets a first grader at the beginning of the academic year, and they are connected as buddy partners. The first grader keeps their same high school partner for three years. In third grade, the program ramps-up and the seniors mentor their younger buddies on a kayaking trip that would be too difficult for third graders alone.

“MMS has had a cross-age ‘buddy program’ for decades and we know first-hand the positive connections this develops through the grades,” comments Heinrich. “On the surface it’s easy to see the older kids soften and look beyond their own busy lives to say ‘hi’ or chat with their younger buddies, while the younger children light up when they recognize their buddies on campus or in a production. Regardless of age, students feel cared for when a buddy checks in or acknowledges them. 

“I’ve frequently noticed how proud my students are of their big buddies, whether it’s because of a dramatic role in a play or in looking at photos and reading blogs from a school trip. Following the high school production of Fiddler on the Roof , the third graders sang songs from the show for weeks, and wrote their big buddies fan mail expressing appreciation for all the hard work and magic they witnessed on stage. These small moments build recognition, interest and affection between the classes, which can be very powerful. The younger students inspire the older students to step up to be good role models and the osmosis of that is far reaching.

“By having this continual mentoring relationship for the past three years, deeper relationships were able to flourish. It’s something to overhear the younger students telling others with such pride what role their big buddies are going to play in the upcoming Ramayana! or who scored the winning point in a volleyball match! Likewise, when the older students take time to watch the younger buddies present school work – such as the books they created around their cultural awareness study of India – no adult affirmation could sink in like the praises they receive from a buddy. Even playing together is enriched; our annual kayaking trip to Elkhorn Slough is so much more fun with older and younger students combined instead of adult-only chaperones. It is a win-win situation.”

“This is a program that can only be offered at a K-12 school,” notes Catterall. “The inspiration for this model was developed at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, and was called the ‘Primates’ program. In addition, a consulting group I’m involved with instituted it as a six-year program at another K-12 school; there everyone in the student body is involved and the entire school has a monthly mentoring date. I’d love to see the program expand like that at MMS; there has been nothing but glowing feedback about the activities from the students, teachers, and parents involved.”

One challenge for teachers was finding a context for the meetings that maximizes learning and community-building for both age groups. At MMS, past third/twelfth grade ‘buddies’ have studied Extreme Poverty through the Bead for Life program; Estuaries and Shorebirds, Sharks and Rays; and general science. The first/tenth grade program often meets outdoors for bonding activities and picnics. Often the older students gain a deeper learning of their curriculum by designing a lesson for the younger ones.

“I think maintaining a strong connection between the lower and upper grades is an integral part of Mount Madonna,” comments senior Joseph Frediani. “It’s important to keep the same buddy for several years because that way you get to build a meaningful relationship.” 
The success of the buddy program can be felt during all-school events like the Ramayana! , as the younger students love to have a comfortable relationship with the older students they look up to.

“My buddy David follows me, pushes me on the swing and builds forts with me,” shares first grader Erik Howley.

“Lena is my buddy,” says first grader Katie Garrison. “I like to play on the swing while she watches me.”

“My students help to hold me accountable to our big buddy time each month,” says MMS first grade teacher Cassia Laffin. “We usually hike out to the big swing and I watch my students’ eyes grow bright as they spot their big buddies and run into each others’ arms! As precious as academic learning time is to me, I’ve come to value the importance of facilitating these very special friendships.” 

MMS second grade teacher and parent Jenni Leach agrees:

“My daughter Denali has a lot of friends her age or a grade or two ahead of her, but she had no experience talking to or working with high school students when she started elementary school three years ago. She met Rudy and the other big buddies (then 10th graders), her first year at MMS. He has been her ‘big buddy’ ever since, and this year she has been able to kayak, and do other activities as part of this program.

“The buddy system has built my daughter’s confidence in interactions with older children, made her proud of her school as she watches all of the big buddies play sports and perform. Rudy is kind, loving, helpful and encouraging to Denali. This three-year relationship will continue after Rudy’s graduation as Denali has expressed a desire to keep in contact with him. No other program I know of provides 7 to 9-year-old students with this type of experience. The buddy system is another reason Denali plans on continuing as an MMS student through 12th grade; so that she can provide someone else with the same ‘little buddy’ experience Rudy has given her.” 

This mentoring program is especially relevant during senior year, when students need to process the rite-of-passage of leaving home and moving-on to the next phase of their lives.

“I feel incredibly connected to my buddy and students who are much younger,” notes senior Bryson Smith.

Senior Karina Fox agrees: “Spending time with our little buddies is like reconnecting with our childhood.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Media & Public Relations,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.