In January 2015, Ian Hockley came to New Fairfield Middle School to see if it would be interested in a pilot program developed by Dylan’s Wings of Change. The Wingman Program was founded by the Hockley family, in part to honor the memory of their son Dylan, one of the 20 children killed in the Newtown/Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Dylan’s Wings of Change is a non-profit foundation dedicated to the memory of Dylan and is committed to helping children with autism and other related conditions “reach their full potential.” One of its special programs is Wingman, a school-based program that trains students to be leaders and “uses principals of inclusion and empathy to create an accepting environment for all individuals.”
New Fairfield Middle School is one of seven Connecticut schools to embrace the program, and one of the first. It has been so successful with Wingman that it is now considered a model program.
“Founder Ian Hockley came to us in early 2015 to see if we would be interested in becoming involved in the Foundation’s Wingman Program,” said Joel Pardalis, one of New Fairfield Middle School’s (NFMS) Wingman advisors. “He didn’t have a full plan, but an idea, and we took that idea and ran with it; now we are pretty much a model school for this developing and expanding program,” said Mr. Pardalis.
Mr. Pardalis, a former Language Arts teacher and now Secondary Humanities Curriculum Coordinator at NFMS, co-advises the student-run group with Rachel Wilson, an 8th grade science teacher.
WINGMAN AND PACK
The Wingman Program is run through the PACK Leadership Team. PACK, or Positive Actions Caring Kids, is a group of about 45 students in 7th and 8th grades chosen by counselor and teacher recommendations. The PACK team organizes and leads the Wingman Program for NFMS. PACK’s core values are Pride, Attitude, Commitment and Keeping it Safe.
“Wingman is basically a program that encourages people to go above and beyond for others, and looks to improve the culture of schools through challenges and positive modeling,” Mr. Pardalis explained. “PACK adopted Wingman as a way to help deal with whatever challenging social issues there are at NFMS,” he added.
Through PACK and Wingman, students are taught the importance of empathy, respect and collaboration as it pertains to all types of peers and peer situations, and to think about the power of their words.
“The programs are designed to let adolescents step out of their comfort zone and do things that positively affect their fellow men and women; we want them to understand that even the little things they do can impact others in ways they would never otherwise know,” said Mr. Pardalis.
He also noted that the programs seek to help students recognize the importance of making good choices within their peer groups.
Wingman members meet Friday mornings before school, and the students discuss whatever issues they feel are relevant as well as solutions. The group is totally student-led, and it encourages “daily bits of kindness” by all students and ways to make a difference in someone’s life. Approximately 23 8th graders serve on five different committees, and the 7th graders shadow them to learn how to run the committees the following year; the
committees develop their own themes and activities.
The Wingman Program is a five-part process, with students
divided into five committees responsible for running one part of the program. The committees are Events, Challenges, Takeover Days, Recognitions and Communications.
The Communications Committee writes articles about the program and events, and makes videos that appear on the NFMS Wingman website NFMSWINGMAN.weebly.com. The Events Committee prepares for the yearly opening event for all NFMS students and presentations at the CAS Leadership Conference for Middle Schools. Recently, Wingman members presented to the Board of Education, encouraging all New Fairfield residents to take on the principals of Wingman.
The Challenges Committee considers the day to day issues some students face and how others can help, providing examples of how to make a difference in a person’s life. The Recognition Committee honors students who were nominated for Wingman status three times a year, organizing a celebration lunch at Biscotti’s Restaurant and other activities.
The Takeover Days Committee plans five different lessons, three times a year, that each grade can teach to the grade below them. This year the themes are empathy, unity and community. Takeover Day lessons have also touched on teamwork, the power of words, perseverance, risk-taking, trust and problem solving.
In September, all NFMS students heard from motivational speaker Eddie Slowikowski, who talked about the ideals of Wingman and how to be a good wingman to those fellow students who could really use one but not might ask.
Wingman asks the students to behave in a positive manner towards others that goes beyond and above what is normally expected by society. It makes a point to ask students to consistently treat every person with kindness and respect, and empowers adolescents to observe what and who is around them, identify areas they can help with or improve and find solutions on their own. Wingman and PACK encourage students to be leaders and make the right decisions.
“The Wingman Program has taken on a life of its own I never thought possible,” said co-advisor Rachel Wilson. “The program not only affects our student leaders, but the entire school, creating a more positive environment,” said Ms. Wilson. “Some of our student leaders have mentioned that less students are sitting alone at lunch, and students are being more kind to each other in general,” she noted.
By J.U. Azzi