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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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University High leadership squad aims to improve students’ days with themed greetings

Samantha Kern dropped the idea on her class the first week of the new school year.

The new leadership teacher at University High challenged her students “to build a program based on kindness and inclusion and empathy.”

That small challenge, that acorn of an idea, has taken root with a group of senior boys.

It was a simple idea. The group would pick one day a week and spend the morning welcoming fellow students as they came into the school and bid them all to have a good day.

Thursdays worked best, because classes get a late start.

“It was just a way we could flip people’s day,” Jeremy Austing said. “We didn’t want people to just come to school and suffer for eight hours.”

They started off a little self-conscious.

“It’s their senior year,” Kern explained. “They hadn’t ripped up their cool card, yet.”

It did not take long for the group to realize that they had, in fact, hit on something new and cool.

The premise is as simple as the idea that inspired it. The boys welcome as many students as they can by name and invite everyone heading for the front door to have a good day.

Austing got his hands on a bullhorn and he uses it to greet people, students and teachers alike.

“I can speak for all of us when I say that, at first, it was a little awkward,” Austing said. “You could tell that some kids were just tired and they tried to walk around us. We try not to let them get by. What’s best is when we get them to laugh.”

The rest of the group joins in the chorus. For some, they make a tunnel for fellow students to walk through while collecting high-fives and handing out candy. Or donuts.

Familiar students get a pat on the back or a hug, a fist bump or just an extra moment of recognition.

“Instead of just being cliche about it, we decided we were going to have fun and go full out,” Clayton Murock said. “The first two weeks we were just being really enthusiastic, and that was OK. Then we started holding themes for every single week.”

The first theme was to have a beach party.

“It was something we already had a lot of props for,” Murock laughed. “The majority of us wore swim trunks. We brought in a mini blow-up pool and put a little water in it and filled it with some rubber duckies. We handed out Peppermint Patties and we had old-fashioned root beer. And we played a lot of Beach Boys music.”

For Halloween, of course, there were different costumes and monster-themed music.

But the enthusiasm remained at a high level.

“I am so proud of these guys,” Kern said, a huge smile spread across her face.

The group enthusiasm is infectious. And it’s having the desired results.

“The second week or so I had a girl come to me and tell me that she’d come to school in a bad mood,” assistant principal Ken VanSickle said. “She had some heavy stuff happening in her life and it was weighing her down. And then she got here and these guys welcomed her to school and gave her a big smile and a pat on the back.

“ ‘You have no idea how much of a difference that made for me,’ she said. ‘It made a big difference and it changed my whole day.’ ”

With some 2,000 students, recognizing each student by name is a tad unrealistic.

“I get as many of them as I can,” Austing said. “You can tell that it makes a difference.”

What’s cool, the boys say, is to walk through the halls and listen to comments.

“The teachers don’t recognize me from being part of all this,” Austing said. “I hear them talking about us. I hear things like ‘Yeah, they do that EVERY Thursday morning.’ ”

This week the group settled on a country theme, complete with costumes and special music. Next week? They are collecting donations from area doughnut shops with a goal of offering every student a pastry.

“Every Monday we sit down and try to decide on a theme,” Murock said. “We try to come up with new ones because we don’t want to repeat ourselves.”

That part of the process, they admit, could use a little refinement.

“Most of the time, we figure out what we’re going to do that week at 10 o’clock on Wednesday night,” Austing laughed. “Sometimes I just do what I’m told on Thursday morning.”

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