The freshman focus

Gowanda helps ninth-graders prepare for high school life — and beyond

Submitted Photo The students volunteer beautification services at the sprawling, wooded Pine Hill Cemetery.

Special to the OBSERVER

GOWANDA — Side by side, soaked in sweat, they toiled at Pine Hill Cemetery. Armed with rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows, a group of students starting their freshman year at Gowanda High School in September worked on beautification efforts in this historic graveyard perched atop a winding road leading up from the village center.

It was a steamy morning (Friday, Aug. 10) with the sun filtering through the peaceful, arboretum-like place of rest and these determined teenagers were celebrating the end of a week spent learning how to successfully navigate the next four years of their lives by showing some love to their community.

This group volunteer effort was led by educators Emily Naetzker and Molly Dalimonte of the Liberty Partnership Program, a New York State Education Department-funded program facilitated via The State University of New York at Fredonia with the support and participation of the Gowanda Central School District. The LPP is a 30-year-old program that provides students with services intended to support, assist and help teens obtain a degree and prepare them for higher education or the workforce.

This summer, the LPP focused on the transition from middle school to high school by offering a weeklong program in August (Aug. 6-10) to all incoming ninth-graders to help them navigate expectations and responsibilities at their new school.

Submitted Photo The students volunteer beautification services at the sprawling, wooded Pine Hill Cemetery.

“This is time to take care of yourself,” said Naetzker to the group several times. “Take care of your bodies, your mind, your school work. Don’t get sucked into peer pressure or peer drama. Be true to you and always do what is best for yourself.”


As the students prepare to begin their high school experience, the instructors hope they can start finding themselves in the process. Under the guidance of Dalimonte and Naetzker, about a dozen teens (approximately 10 percent of the Class of 2022) spent five-hour days getting a glimpse of life as an upperclassmen with the added bonus of getting a preview of all the opportunities and experiences high school offers.

The week began with a scavenger hunt around the high school on Monday, where they got to explore the hallways and classrooms and generally acquaint themselves with the layout of the school. The group spent time interviewing faculty on Tuesday and got to meet and talk with some administrators. On Wednesday, a visit from school counselor Jennifer Mattimore was the highlight of the day. Mattimore talked about how to be successful at high school and discussed how the Counseling Department is there to connect with students and help them find out where they want to go in life.

“High school is like a video game,” said Mattimore as she discussed the different tracks of study and diplomas available at GHS. “You must meet the requirements to level up to the next grade — you can’t take a snooze for 40 weeks. Being involved matters. Coming to school matters.” She then ticked off some unique class offerings including Lego Robotics, Astronomy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy Literature and the History of Film.

Submitted Photo Freshmen at Gowanda High School spent a week of their summer vacation learning how to be their best selves — at school, at home and in their community — via a summer transition program offered by the Liberty Partnership Program.

Resources available to the students include the Learning Center, where a teacher is assigned to stay every day after school to help students with their studies.

“Advocate for yourself. Raise your hand,” said Mattimore, encouragingly. “Ask that question. Say ‘I didn’t get it.’ If you’re too shy or embarrassed, approach the teacher after class and ask, ‘Can I come by after school to go over it?'”

On Thursday, several recent GHS grads — Hunter Ring, Sydne Dingman, Casey Dingman, Max Crosson, Kurt Stitzle, and Alicia Barlow — participated in a peer mentor discussion and answered questions with honesty, support and encouragement. Crosson, owner of Max’s Lawn Care Services and one of Naetzker’s former students and current success story, spoke to the group about his path to success. The summer program culminated in a group volunteer effort at Pine Hill with Crosson donating his services, truck, equipment and expertise as they cleaned gutters, trimmed tree branches, raked, and disposed of wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dead leaves and detritus.

Dalimonte, who has been with LPP for more than 15 years, is thankful to everyone — students, parents, GCS staff, and community members — that helped make this program possible.

“I would love to see more students participate in this type of program opportunity,” said Dalimonte. “The students have expressed to us that they feel less anxious about starting High School after completing the LPP summer transition program.”

Submitted Photo The students volunteer beautification services at the sprawling, wooded Pine Hill Cemetery.

For their participation in the weeklong summer program, the students were gifted brand-new backpacks loaded basic school supplies including pens, pencils, folders, paper and a binder.


The beautification effort made quite an impression on the Gowanda Pine Hill Cemetery Association, which was extremely pleased with the help of the students who volunteered to clean up parts of the grounds.

“When Mrs. Naetzger called with her offer to take a bunch of teenagers armed with rakes and shovels to do some volunteer work on the cemetery grounds, we were delighted. The debris created by wind, rain and snow storms over the past two years has resulted in hazardous conditions for those wanting to visit the resting places of their loved ones,” said cemetery association member Jack Torrance. “The cemetery would appreciate additional student help again as needed in the future.” Torrance also expressed gratitude to Dalimonte and Naetzker for coordinating the work detail and to Crosson for donating his equipment and talents.

“Progress was made. It benefits us all and is truly a service to the community,” said Torrance.


GHS is offering one more opportunity for students to get a head start on high school at the end of August. The Freshmen Kick-Off Orientation is planned today, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. with an opportunity for ninth-graders to meet their teachers and counselors. The orientation will begin with a discussion about diploma types and graduation requirements in the high school auditorium with tours of the building afterward. Students will receive their schedules and locker assignments. The event will conclude with prizes and pizza.