Each year we welcome a new group of students to our high school. They come to us with high hopes, deep fears, and a clean slate. The freshman year of high school is perhaps the most important year of schooling that any student will experience. Many studies have been conducted that have shown a high correlation between success in the freshman year (focused mainly on grades and attendance) and graduating on time. This blog isn’t about those predictors or how to increase your graduation rate, although those have been nice byproducts of our work, but about what we can do as teachers and administrators to help with the often difficult transition from middle school to high school.
At Rogers High School, the freshman year has been a major focus in our quest to retain our students and set them up for success in high school and beyond (we call it T24). While we haven’t completely solved the issues pertaining to the transition, the Freshman Team has implemented some practices that I think others can take and adapt to fit the needs of their students. Our major focus has been on implementing as many common practices as possible, rewarding students who are being productive students, and providing academic and social support systems for those that are struggling.
Before outlining what we have done at Rogers, let me give you some demographics. Each year we bring in approximately 400 freshmen and have approximately 25 teachers/staff members dedicated to teaching and supporting them. The very first thing we did as a group was to determine the characteristics of a freshman student and determined what teacher characteristics are important to possess in order to get the most of those students. The teachers and staff members were selected strategically to insure to have the best mesh of teachers working together and with the freshmen.
This was perhaps the most difficult conversations and has probably had the greatest impact on student performance. The goal was to get as many things common as possible (terminology, grading practices, restroom procedures, note-taking formats, organizational tools, etc). With 25 staff members, you can imagine that coming to consensus on these topics was not easy. There were some great conversations, some important arguments, and ultimately some great collaboration to insure that everyone was comfortable with the decisions made.
Prior to these agreements being made a student may walk into 1st period and be asked to take out their binder and begin their opener, go to 2nd period and be asked to take out a piece of paper to do their bell-ringer, go to 3rd period and take out their notebook for the entry task, go to 4th… you get the idea. By getting all on the same page and making concessions and agreements we no longer have students navigating 6 different sets of expectations during the day, but instead know that what is expected in one class, is expected in all classes. (Note: We didn’t reach consensus on everything, so don’t expect miracles; but there are plenty of things that you will be able to agree upon.)
Often times students are only recognized when they do something wrong. Our goal was to switch the emphasis and begin recognizing students that were doing well in school and being good citizens at school. We began by outlining what the ideal student would look like and what types of things students would want as rewards. We reached out to local businesses to see what types of programs they have in place to support schools and found that our community was not only willing, but excited to help with our goals.
This year we have been rewarding students: randomly for being good citizens, each month by having teachers nominate a Student of the Month, each quarter for having a high GPA, and each semester for passing all their classes. We have done pizza lunches, pie on pi day, cake monthly, a semester movie, and given away passes and tickets to local events from business donations. While these have worked well for us, I suggest having conversations in your building about what your individual emphasis should be.
This year our building has dedicated two counselors to freshmen (one that will cycle up with the class and one that will stay at the freshman level). The freshman counselor has been working closely with feeder middle schools to help get more information about each class prior to their showing up in September and to give the students at least one familiar face when they arrive. Each AGIS (Achievement Gap Intervention Specialists) also has a small caseload of the more at risk freshmen and are checking in weekly with those students to insure that everything is going well for them.
Each freshman has been placed into a soft skills class in order to help with organization, study skills, and has academic focus to help students insure they are doing well in all classes. The class varies based on the students wants/needs as they could take AVID, JROTC, Leadership, or a CAP class. Most classes have similar models and all have the goal of helping to grow the young person into a more well-rounded student.
Like I said, we are far from solving the issue of student drop-outs and haven’t come close to perfecting what the freshman year should look like; so share with me… What things are done in your building to bridge the gap from Middle to High School?
Aside from teaching, I also coach baseball (JV for the high school and AA for American Legion) and enjoy spending time with my wife and son.
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