Bentonville, Ark. — Newcomers to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School always have a friend, thanks to school counselor Hazel Skaggs. The friend is the class ''ambassador.''
An ambassador takes charge of the new student on his first day in school and shows him where to find the important places: the bathroom, the cafeteria, the playground, the library. Ambassadors answer questions, introduce the new child to other children, and in general hold out a hand in friendship to an often lonely and frightened child.
Mrs. Skaggs, who won the National Elementary School Counselor award this year , says, ''Currently we have 120 children in the ambassador program, two from each classroom.
''The program has two purposes. First, each child coming into our school has someone to be his friend and help him out. Secondly, the program provides leadership training to the children who serve as ambassadors.''
Each October Mrs. Skaggs and individual teachers choose two children, a boy and a girl, to be ambassadors. The two serve until the following April, then two more are chosen.
''That way, there's an overlap. In the fall, when a new class gets together, there are two ambassadors present, already trained and ready to go,'' said Mrs. Skaggs.
Mrs. Skaggs believes that her original idea to form the ambassador program was one of the main reasons for her winning the national elementary counseling award. ''Almost all of the letters written to support my candidacy mentioned the ambassador program.''
Mrs. Skaggs also teaches classroom teachers how to develop social and emotional skills in their students. A parent-effectiveness training class is one of her evening projects. In her free time Hazel Skaggs works on the board of directors of a non-profit corporation now organizing a day-care center for working parents.
The ambassador project has been so successful that several other Arkansas schools have initiated their own ambassador programs.
Being an ambassador carries a lot of prestige. This was especially important for the children chosen from the class for educable mentally retarded (EMR). Mrs. Skaggs remembers, ''One little boy from our EMR class threw his arms wide and squealed with joy because he was so happy. He said he'd never been chosen to be anything before.''
Prestige isn't all. Ambassadors win and wear their own permanent pin-on badges, which identify their position.
''We didn't have enough money to buy a permanent badge for all the children. But then we had a parents' meeting. The parents liked the program so much that they raised $100. That made it possible to give each child a badge,'' she said.