Freshmen academy aids in transitiion to High School
story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Assigned seats put intimidated newcomers next to older students, class change brings with it confusion and resulting tardiness, and the hierarchy that is seating in the cafeteria can lead to embarrassment. Whether socially, academically or otherwise, the first day of high school often brings with it a sense of anguish, at least to some degree, for ninth graders.
At Morgan County High School, however, a program has been instituted to help aid in the transition to high school.
Welcome to Freshman Academy.
Why a Freshman Academy?
"It's like a school within a school," Assistant Principal and Freshman Academy Administrator Davis Bell said. "It's a small learning community."
Born from research out of John Hopkins University, according to Principal Mark Wilson, who started Freshman Academy at the school four years ago, the idea of "Freshman Academy" isn't a new one, nor are its reasons for being.
"There have been 'Freshman Academy' programs in place as long as 30 years ago," Wilson said. "The single grade in school that has the highest retention is ninth grade. This is true all over the country."
Currently, Wilson said, over half of the schools he knows of have Freshman Academy-like programs, each with the goal of easing the transition to high school.
"Going to high school for the first time is scary," Wilson said "Problems occur because they have more freedom in high school."
Within that same train of thought, it is believed that students who begin their high school career in a nurturing environment will glean the tools they need to make it through the next three years in three years.
"Freshman Academy is the first part of making progress towards keeping kids in school," Wilson said. "If they're off to a good start, they're a lot more likely to graduate."
The Inner Workings
Morgan County High School's Freshman Academy is contained in one hall, near the front of the school. It is made up of two teams, with one teacher for each of the core academic areas -- English, social studies, math and science -- per team.
Moreover, the majority of teachers within the Freshman Academy teach solely freshmen.
"The teachers work with freshmen all day," Wilson said. "We have people who like working with freshmen and aren't afraid to say so."
The teachers meet at least three times per week, once as the collective Freshman Academy, once as a team and at least once with their collaborative teacher on the other team, as well as having a common planning period. This way, the Academy functions more cohesively as a whole and allows the collaborative teachers to keep track of each other, both aiding in learning that adapts to the pace and needs of the students.
"The team concept allows us to keep better track of student academic performance, and it allows for better contact between parents and teachers," Freshman Academy math teacher Pam Newsome said.
"While occasionally we have to modify lessons to meet the individual needs of students and classes, my curriculum partner and I strive to be in the same place at the same time," Freshman Academy English teacher Heather Jenkins said.
Classes in the Freshman Academy are kept to strictly freshmen, which allows for a certain comfort level in class as well as the understanding of the fact that no one student has seen the material before.
"These kids are definitely comfortable in class and with each other," Freshman Academy history teacher Courtney Castellana said.
"Students do not display any concerns about asking questions in class," Freshman Academy math teacher Dinean Stevens said. "They participate extremely well."
"That's why we have Freshman Academy all year long, so the kids can be confident," Wilson said. "They're not having to modify their relationships all year long."
If ninth-grade students do fail any of their classes, they are not permitted back into Freshman Academy; instead, they must make up the class after school or during the summer.
In addition to academics, attendance and discipline are also high priorities within Freshman Academy. Field trips are offered every nine weeks for Freshman Academy students, according to Bell, who are passing their classes, meet the attendance requirements and haven't had any disciplinary referrals.
Past field trips include going bowling and to the Varsity in Athens, the Mall of Georgia and the Malibu Grand Prix in Norcross.
"We have an administrator assigned specifically to Freshman Academy to work with discipline and attendance issues," Newsome said. "We encourage good behavior and attendance by offering positive incentives."
"I think it helps," Freshman Academy student J.D. Hawkins said. "It's more like a reward, not an incentive."
Morgan County High School faculty and administration make it a point to establish a relationship with upcoming freshmen and their parents early, specifically the second semester of their eighth grade year.
This year, as with past years, discussion began in mid-February with a "Welcome to the Class of 2012" at Morgan County Middle School. Lectures run through May, with discussions including "Academics at MCHS; Class Selection Process" in late February; "Elective Presentations" and "Elective Choices at MCHS" in mid-March; and the two-part "Getting Ready for High School Series" on Thursday, May 1 and Thursday, May 15. Further, as part of the "Elective Choices," the eighth graders got the chance to visit the high school.
The Freshman Academy also began hosting meetings for students and their parents or guardians in February. The "Parent Introduction Meeting" kicked off the series of four meetings, introducing parents and students to the Academy and discussing athletics and extracurricular activities, Advisory/Enrichment, Physical Education/Health and Driver Education. The following "Parent Informational Meetings" were divided into the subject areas of Mathematics; Science, English, Social Studies and Foreign Languages; and Electives as well as general information on course selection.
In addition, the Freshman Academy will host BOOST (Building Opportunities Over Summer Time) Camp this summer, as they have in years past.
The point of all of these get-togethers, again, is to provide for a smooth transition.
"The ninth graders are more comfortable coming in because they've been here so much and we've worked with them," Wilson said.
Current ninth-grade students expressed having mixed feelings about being separated from the rest of the school at first, but now understand the goal of Freshman Academy and the reasons behind how it works.
"We're isolated from everyone, so it's like another year of school," Hawkins said, comparing his Freshman Academy experience to that of previous years.
"If teachers see us doing bad in one thing, they really try to help," Freshman Academy student Kaitlyn Fain said.
"Now that it's the second half of the year, I could be in class with older students," Freshman Academy student Emily Jones said. "At first, though, it's nice to be in a small group."
This year's seniors mark the first graduating class to have participated in Freshman Academy. Just like this year's freshmen, the seniors said they weren't too keen on the whole Freshman Academy experience at first.
"I was really mad about Freshman Academy," senior Malin Dartnell said.
Apparently, according to the seniors interviewed, the Freshman Academy hall was painted in different colored blocks during its first year of existence, an effort to make it stand out from the rest of the school and to make it look more appealing. Instead, the hall was dubbed "Candyland" and became a bit of a running joke among students.
Needless to say, "Candyland" was painted over the next year.
Now older and wiser, the seniors understand why Freshman Academy was designed as it was and the benefits it gave them.
"We had a group of just freshmen teachers, so they could work with us as freshmen as opposed to working with all grades that don't necessarily relate," senior Andi Dangerfield said, explaining the benefits of having teachers teaching solely freshmen.
"We got the opportunity to have one-on-one time [with teachers]," senior Kerleisha Jones said. "Everybody was on the same boat because we're all freshmen."
The seniors also attested to the fact that being semi-separated from the rest of the school fostered a sense of community among students.
"We didn't have to act cool for older kids in class with us," Dartnell said. "Forming a community helped us academically."
"Everyone knows each other really, really well," Jones said.
"But, we were still in high school, and the electives were still with upper class-men," Dangerfield said.
All of the seniors agreed that Freshman Academy allowed them more freedom than they had in middle school, but not as much freedom as being upper class-men. They think that the program provided for a good transition for all of them, and for their classmates.
The goal of Freshman Academy being the provision of a seamless transition to high school, the underlying objective of the program is to keep more students in school and help them to graduate in four years.
"Freshman Academy is really a graduation tool," Wilson said. "We have seen improvement in students passing classes."
With almost four years of the program down and the first Freshman Academy class set to graduate this year, the administration and faculty feel that the program is a success.
"Having been a middle school teacher for several years in another county, I feel that giving freshmen the chance to acclimate themselves to high school through the Freshman Academy really helps with the transitional issues that a lot of students face when coming from middle school to high school," Jenkins said.