REED CITY\u00a0\u2014 To help create a safe, positive and healthy school environment Reed City Middle School has implemented a program that is forming family units between staff and students in sixth through eighth grades. Family Groups is an initiative which take place during the half-days of the school year and encourages the students to become more of a community with each other and teaching staff. About five students from each grade level gather together in a specific classroom for the day, eat lunch together and discuss a special topic such as test taking or bullying. The groups also share a 10-minute long breakfast session and watch the morning announcement video together each day. RCMS Principal Dean McGuire began the program two years ago as a way to improve the lives of students while in school. "The research I read shows that students, especially at the middle school age, need a sense of belonging," McGuire said. "Sometimes we get so worried about curriculum that we sometimes overlook aspects like that." Seventh-grade social studies teacher Sarah Morlock hosts one of the groups. "The students to get to know one another, especially across grade levels, and the program gets them to support each other. It's more of a family feeling," Morlock said. "Sometimes they pick what they'd like to do, and sometimes we do things like listening to music." One of the goals of Family Groups is to encourage a safe atmosphere for individuals to respectfully speak their minds, McGuire added. "We've had a lot of heavy conversations in the beginning of the year where there were some tears in classrooms, so we've hit some pretty hot topics," he said. "We made a rule that whatever they talk about in their classroom doesn't leave. Some of the things could spread around school pretty quickly, so it's supposed to stay in the room. It's tough to expect that from middle schoolers, but those are the guidelines we try to go by." Family Groups also provides opportunities for youth to take on leadership roles. "The older kids get to do some mentoring to the younger kids to make them feel a little more comfortable with the school," Morlock said. "With this program we're also trying to get the kids to talk and bring some positivity. We've done random acts of kindness incentives, to get kids to think about things like that. We're trying to open up a dialog between the kids and try to get them to think about how they treat each other and accepting their differences." The students have responded well to the program, she added. "I've seen the eighth graders take a little more responsibility for the group and want to take care of things," Morlock said. "You see the eighth graders rise to the occasion." The groups also participate in volunteer opportunities. During the Christmas season, some of the groups sang Christmas carols to seniors at Altercare. Other students have read to GT Norman Elementary School students. Seventh-grader Alexis Penney and sixth-grader Ben Harris enjoy Family Groups, especially when it comes to the security it provides. "You can go to everyone in the room about anything because what happens in there can't come out of the room," Penney said. "What you say in there can't come out. It's a safe environment to talk." Harris agreed, and said he looks forward to the times he gets to spend with his group. "The people are nice," he said. "We really feel like a family." Morlock hopes the program will continue in the future, while McGuire is looking to expand it, creating T-shirts and adding group activities. "It's a different way to think about education, how students connect with students and how teachers connect with students. It's been a good way to connect with the kids and have fun with them," Morlock said. "I think sometimes having some fun has value. Seeing your teacher on a more personal level and creating that rapport and relationship with students gives you a little bit better behavior in the classroom."