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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Easing the Transition to High School

Students in their first year at a Chicago-area high school find a lifeline in upperclass mentors.

Easing the Transition to High School- thumbnail
Thirty-three high school freshmen spill into their ninth-period Freshman Advisory session, chattering as usual: “What's up?” “No WAY!” “Hey, did you even get that last problem?” Upperclass mentors Ned, Mickie, Georgia, and Maye greet the 9th graders as they enter the room, helping them settle into one of four study groups to prepare for their end-of-semester exams. The mentors have designated the four corners of the room as Algebra, Western Civilization, English, and Biology and tell the freshmen, “Sit with the group where you think you're having the most trouble.” Mrs. Mankowski, the advisory teacher for this group of freshmen, suggests to one of her students, Frank, that he sit with the Western Civilization group.
Ned joins the Western Civilization group, asking, “What are you guys going to work on today?” Seven freshmen pull out review sheets that they need to complete for tomorrow's class. Frank can't find his, but another group member offers to share. As the history book pages flip back and forth, the group gets stuck on a question about Greek and Roman architecture. Ned prompts, “When I get stuck on something, I either go back to the chapter or check in the index. Which do you want to do?” Half of the group members look in the index and the other half flip back to the Greek and Roman unit. Ned further reminds the group about strategies for reading history material: “Remember about looking for headings and how the book is organized.” Soon the reference is found, the question is answered, and the group moves on.
In many high schools, these freshmen would be facing their first experience with high school finals on their own. But here at Maine East, weekly sessions led by trained upperclass student mentors help ease first-year students' transition from middle school to high school.
This transition can be perilous for adolescents. Middle schools usually have far fewer students than high schools and are structured into small teaching teams and “house” arrangements that shield students from getting lost in the crowd. As they enter high school, young adolescents must adjust to older students, a wider array of teachers throughout the day, and increased social and academic pressures. Developmentally, many are poorly prepared to navigate such a demanding transition (Montemayor, Adams, & Guilotta, 2000).

Confronting First-Year Failure

When Maine East, a large, diverse school outside of Chicago, found that sizable numbers of its first-year students were unable to successfully adjust to high school and pass all of their classes, school principal David Barker and I took a proactive approach. We created a schoolwide Freshman Advisory program. Sophomore, junior, and senior student mentors provide structured academic and social guidance to almost all our freshmen throughout their first high school year (some Maine East freshmen in other special programs do not participate). Each year at Maine East, 50 upperclass mentors, 16 advisory teachers, and a program coordinator work together to help nearly 400 9th graders survive and thrive during this transitional year.
The Freshman Advisory's slogan—“Doing well and being well”—reflects its dual emphasis on grounding students academically and socially. This focus connects to research findings that suggest that academic achievement is strongly influenced by the quality of a student's social environment and by how strongly the student feels attached to school (Cotton, 2001). In Breaking Ranks (1996), the National Association of Secondary School Principals urges large schools like Maine East to develop strategies to ensure that each student is known well at school, that each student's progress is closely monitored, and that all students believe they have academic and social support.

Developing the Advisory

Of Maine East High School's 2,200 students, 70 percent are native speakers of one of 57 foreign languages and 40 percent were born outside the United States. Although Maine East's students live in seven municipalities, 90 percent of our freshmen come from one junior high school.
When David Barker became principal of Maine East in 1999, he was concerned about the high failure rate among incoming freshmen—and about the fact that few freshmen participated in extracurricular activities. He decided that outreach was needed to help first-year students feel connected to the school and academically secure. As the school social worker, I assembled a planning team of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and counselors that met for two years to create the Freshman Advisory program.
Our planning team researched the literature on advisory programs before developing specifics for the program at Maine East. We decided that advisory sessions would replace the weekly freshman study hall, would be led by selected upperclass mentors, and would be supervised by staff in lieu of other supervisory duties (such as cafeteria monitoring). We designed the curriculum to focus on both academic and affective outcomes for first-year students. The program's goals would be increased academic success for freshmen—indicated by a reduction in first-year failure rates—and increased participation in extracurricular activities.

Student Mentors and Advisory Teachers

Student mentors are central to the Freshman Advisory because they deliver its curriculum. Students who want to be mentors complete an application in the spring, secure a recommendation from two staff members, and participate in a group interview. During the interview, we evaluate mentors on their “people skills”—such as whether they maintain eye contact and share the interview with others. It is essential that mentors can readily connect with first-year students. Once selected, each mentor is randomly assigned to work with an advisory section throughout the year, consisting of approximately 30 freshmen, 5 mentors, and 1 supervisory teacher.
Throughout the school year, mentors participate in ongoing training. Mentors receive direct instruction in teaching the curriculum of the advisory program, participate in role-playing activities, and prepare daily lesson plans. The advisory teachers guide mentors in understanding the purpose and meaning of curriculum activities and in learning to work with teams. Mentors go through summer training in team-building activities and receive instruction on the scope, sequence, and specific units of the yearlong advisory curriculum.
Advisory teachers, who are drawn from school staff and who volunteer their time, supervise the advisory sessions. They are responsible for maintaining order in the classroom, dealing with discipline problems, and guiding student mentors in the way they might guide a student teacher. Advisory teachers meet with their mentor teams twice a month to review lesson plans, suggest instructional techniques, and take the pulse of how mentors believe they are doing. Members of the guidance department also meet twice a month with mentors, focusing on the interactions of the mentoring teams. I act as program coordinator of the Freshman Advisory, volunteering a portion of my week to develop curriculum and oversee the entire program.

The Freshman Advisory Curriculum

The curriculum presented in advisory sessions is driven by three concepts related to helping first-year students become socially and academically secure: attachment, achievement, and awareness. Lessons and group activities center around strengthening these three qualities in Maine East's first-year students.
Attachment. Attachment refers to the connection students feel to one another and, ideally, to their school. Mentors lead ice-breaker and team-building activities to help students within their advisory group feel connected to one another and to their mentor. Mentors also strive to strengthen first-year students' attachment to Maine East by connecting them to resources in the building, encouraging them to join clubs, and sharing their own positive experiences of being involved at school. To foster a sense of attachment to the larger community, the program sponsors service learning projects. Last December, advisories made 5,400 cards to mail to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
Achievement. A primary goal of the Freshman Advisory is to help students succeed academically in their first year at Maine East. Mentors teach study skills; time management and stress management skills; and strategies for reading, note taking, and test taking. As program coordinator, I closely monitor all 9th graders' academic progress. Every four weeks, I report in detail to advisory teachers about the current status of each student in his or her advisory group. Although advisory teachers do not share specifics of these reports with mentors, they let mentors know which first-year students are having difficulty so that mentors can offer specific support and assistance. Each month, advisory teachers and mentors receive an overview of the topics, projects, and chapters being covered in freshman English, history, math, and science classes so that mentors can specifically address the familiar refrain of “I have no homework.”
Advisory sessions provide a place for direct academic support. Mentors organize small study groups by content area or learning style. Mentors also frequently check assignment notebooks and urge freshmen to finish homework. They advise freshmen to appropriately help one another and to take advantage of tutorial resources available at the school, including the COACH peer tutorial, the Math Resource Center, the Computing Center, and the English Resource Center. Occasionally, content teachers meet with first-year students who need extra help during advisory sessions.
Awareness. Mentors strive to foster in students self-awareness and the skills to make healthy life decisions. Throughout the year, school counselors participate in advisory sessions to discuss such issues as depression, substance abuse, dating violence, and the media's influence on gender image and self-concept. Mentors plan weekly “Developmental Assets Building” activities that focus on capacities that research has found support healthy youth development (Roehlkepartain, 1997).

Outcomes, Resistance, and Rewards

We implemented the Freshman Advisory program with two specific goals in mind: to reduce the percentage of first-year students failing their freshman year and to increase freshman students' participation in school activities. We have met the first of these goals: Overall, the freshman failure rate has decreased from 37 percent in the first semester of the 2002–2003 school year to 23 percent in the first semester of 2004–2005.
The results on increasing first-year students' participation in extracurricular activities are less dramatic. At the end of the first year of the program (2002–2003), 72 percent of the freshmen reported that they had participated in an after-school club or activity during the school year; at the end of the second year of the program, this rate had increased slightly to 78 percent. At the end of the first quarter of 2004–2005, 64 percent of first-year students had participated in an after-school activity. We are encouraged that almost two-thirds of our freshmen have elected to participate this early in the school year, and we anticipate that participation will increase as the year goes on and more opportunities become available.
We are further encouraged that over the three years we have implemented the Freshman Advisory, support for the program has increased. Faculty and staff members who initially denigrated the idea have come to believe that the advisory is an important resource: On a recent survey, school staff listed the advisory program as one of the top five resources at the school that positively affect student achievement.
The first freshmen to participate in the program were highly resistant, both to having their academic progress monitored and to participating in advisory activities. But mentors have reported little or no resistance to participation during the 2004–2005 school year. When this year's first-year students were asked what they thought the purpose of Freshman Advisory was, virtually all of the responses were positive, along the lines of “to help us through our first year of high school and help us with all the stresses of everyday life.” When asked what they liked best about the program, many freshmen said they like being able to do their homework in a relaxed place where they can get help. They viewed the mentors as working hard to help them: “I like that the mentors are so friendly and really want to help us.” Mentors have reported that working in the program enhanced their own growth and development, noting that they have become more responsible and outgoing, more understanding of their teachers, and more accepting of differences.
Now in our third year of implementing the program, we continue to build a system that fosters attachment, achievement, and awareness—so that all first-year students at Maine East can truly do well and be well.

Cotton, K. (2001). New small learning communities: Findings from recent literature. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Montemayor, R., Adams, G., & Guilotta, T. (Eds.). (2000). Adolescent diversity in ethnic, economic, and cultural contexts. London: Sage Publications.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (1996). Breaking ranks: Changing an American institution. Reston, VA: Author.

Roehlkepartain, J. L. (1997). Building assets together. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute.

End Notes

1 Frank is a pseudonym. All other names in the article are actual student names.

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