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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Moving Out of Middle School

Young adolescents' seamless transition to high school requires cooperative planning by middle and high school educators.

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Each year, thousands of young adolescents make the crucial transition from middle school into high school. As they do so, they often look forward to their new school experience with apprehension. They worry that older students will tease or harass them, that they will get lost in their new school's hallways, that schoolwork will be harder and more time-consuming, and that high school teachers will not help them as much as their middle school teachers did.
Even in the face of these concerns, adolescents are excited about going to high school. They view it as a time of more choice and freedom—both in school and in their personal lives. They look forward to making new friends and participating in more extracurricular activities. Many talk about high school as a time to get a good education and prepare for the future. Most look forward to being successful in high school and graduating in four years.
Unfortunately, some students will falter in high school. Recent statistics indicate that as many as 5 percent of all high school students leave school each year; among certain groups (for example, low-income students), that number rises to 10 percent (Kaufman, Alt, & Chapman, 2001). If current rates continue, one in seven children born in the United States today will not graduate from high school (Children's Defense Fund, 2004). Further, despite the ever-increasing importance of holding a high school diploma, the high school completion rate has not increased significantly since 1985 (Kaufman et al., 2001).
What's happening? Why do so many of our young people fail to move smoothly from middle school into high school or to graduate in four years? More important, what can parents, policymakers, and middle and high school educators do to ensure that every student is prepared to make a successful transition into high school?

Stumbling Blocks

As young adolescents move from middle school to high school, many of them experience a larger, more impersonal school and a more competitive, grade-oriented environment (Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984). Ninth graders report that high school teachers have higher expectations and give more homework than their middle school teachers did (Letrello & Miles, 2003). Students find that they must make more choices about their curriculum and extracurricular activities and that these choices may significantly influence their future. For example, choosing to take a particular section of Algebra I may track a student into the general curriculum when he or she intended to enter the college preparatory curriculum.
In this environment, many adolescents develop a more negative view of themselves than they had in middle school; they feel less competent to handle the academic and social demands of school (Hertzog, Morgan, Diamond, & Walker, 1996). Their initial fears about being teased and getting lost generally turn out to be unfounded, and they may find it easier than they expected to make new friends. But they experience increased demands on their time for studying, doing homework, participating in extracurricular activities, and being socially active (Letrello & Miles, 2003; Mizelle & Irvin, 2000).
Although students recognize the need to manage their time wisely and use effective study skills, many struggle to do so. Students do not know where to turn for help—teachers often do not seem available. In school settings where students continue to feel stressed, alone, and incompetent, their sense of self-worth may plummet, their grades may drop, and they may stop attending school regularly and eventually drop out (Hertzog et al., 1996; Reyes, Gillock, & Kobus, 1994).
Yet adolescents can succeed in their transition to high school—if schools recognize that this transition is an extended process that involves middle and high school administrators, teachers, parents, and students and demands more than a short-term program developed and implemented primarily by high schools. Facilitating adolescents' transition from middle school to high school requires programs that challenge and support students throughout middle school as well as programs that specifically address the transition period.

Challenging Middle School Programs

Research has shown that a challenging and supportive middle school experience is crucial in helping students make a smooth transition to high school (Belcher & Hatley, 1994; Lehr, Johnson, Bremer, Cosio, & Thompson, 2004). Students understand intuitively and from experience that middle school teachers often “cut them too much slack,” neither challenging them to meet high standards nor teaching them how to study on their own (Mizelle, 1995).
What happens when we challenge middle school students? Ample research suggests that students respond to such a challenge in ways that positively affect both their middle school and their high school performance.
At George Fox Middle School in Maryland, a special interdisciplinary curriculum serves as the foundation for a program that proved successful for 44 8th graders who were failing or at risk of failing. The program integrated mathematics with science for one block of instruction and language arts with social studies for a second block. It emphasized project-based learning and incorporated reading and writing into the social studies/language arts block. The teachers worked together to align lessons and to clearly outline their expectations for students.
Since implementing the new curriculum, the middle school has noted a significant improvement in 8th grade scores on the state assessments, as well as fewer discipline problems. The principal of the district's high school further validated the program's success by reporting that the students from Fox were the most well-prepared 9th graders his staff had ever seen (Southern Regional Education Board, 2002).
In a more comprehensive program at Elbert County Middle School in Georgia, 88 students who participated in the Delta Project—staying with the same teachers in grades 6–8 and experiencing hands-on, life-related learning activities, integrated instruction, and cooperative learning groups—were more successful in their transition to high school than were students in the same school who had a more traditional middle school experience. In 9th grade, the Delta students had higher grades in language arts, science, and social science and were more likely to enroll in advanced mathematics courses. The Delta students also said that being involved in the project helped them get along with their peers and feel more confident about learning (Mizelle, 1995).
Similarly, at Sunrise Middle School in inner-city Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, students who participated in the Community for Learning (CFL) program made a more successful transition into high school than did students who had not participated in the program. Key components of the CFL program included support and training for teachers, a learning management system designed to help middle school students develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning and behavior, and an emphasis on community and family involvement. Compared with other students, those in the CFL program demonstrated higher achievement and more positive feelings about middle school. They were also less likely to drop out of high school and better able to maintain their grade-level placement in high school (Oates, Flores, & Weishew, 1998).

Effective Transition Programs

Helping students make a successful transition to high school requires not only challenging middle school programs but also a second crucial element: programs that specifically address the transition period. The transition programs that support students most effectively—keeping them in school and on track to graduate with their peers— offer varied activities. These activities (1) provide students with information about the new school; (2) involve parents in the new school; (3) give students social support; and (4) bring middle school and high school faculties together to learn about each other's curriculum and requirements (Mac Iver, 1990).

Giving Students Information

  • Spring orientation, in which high school counselors, students, and administrators meet with upcoming 9th graders at the middle school or at the high school to answer questions from students and parents.
  • Student shadowing, in which 8th grade students spend a school day shadowing 9th grade students.
  • Student visitations, which allow 8th graders to spend time touring the high school and asking questions.
  • Beginning-of-school orientation, when incoming 9th graders get their schedules and an opportunity to “walk through their day.”
  • Study skills or time management classes that are offered during the summer before 9th grade (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999).
Students' need for information does not end with the beginning of the school year; students also need support as they settle into the high school routine. Schools can support students through such diverse activities as a freshman study skills program and monthly meetings with a school administrator (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999).

Involving Parents

Parent involvement plays a vital role in students' transition to high school. When parents are involved in the transition process, they tend to stay involved with their children throughout high school (Mac Iver, 1990). And parent involvement leads to higher grades, improved test scores, better attendance, more positive attitudes and behavior, and higher graduation rates (Cooper, 1999; Horn & West, 1992; Paulson, Marchant, & Rothlisberg, 1998).
Unfortunately, parent involvement typically drops significantly by 8th grade (Cooper, 1999) and may drop even more during students' transition from middle school to high school unless schools and teachers work to keep parents involved (Epstein, 1996).
The process of maintaining parent engagement must begin in the middle grades. Middle school teachers should ensure that parents feel comfortable coming to school and confident that their involvement makes a difference in their child's academic success. Then, as the time for transition approaches, teachers should keep parents informed about all transition activities and encourage them to participate. Middle school and high school educators together should make sure that parents have access to information—from copies of all the forms they need to complete to a list of key contacts at the high school who can answer their questions (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999).
In addition, high school educators should organize a variety of activities to involve parents during the transition process. For example, the school may invite parents to meet with their child and the high school counselor to discuss coursework and schedules; to visit the high school in the spring before or the fall of the 9th grade year; to spend a day at the high school to experience student life; and to help design and facilitate some transition activities.

Providing Social Support

At a time when friendships and social interaction are particularly important for young adolescents, the transition into high school often disrupts friendship networks. Such disruption can interfere with students' success in high school (Barone, Aguirre-Deandreis, & Trickett, 1991). Thus, high school transition programs should include activities that will give incoming students opportunities to develop positive relationships with older students and other incoming students. Such activities as e-mail pen pal programs, freshman group meetings with counselors, and summer social events work well (Hertzog & Morgan, 1999; Hertzog et al., 1996; Mac Iver, 1990).
For example, in one transition program, 8th and 9th graders met to discuss misconceptions about high school, 8th graders shadowed 9th graders, and each 8th grader wrote to a 9th grade buddy. Students who participated in the transition program missed fewer days of school and earned fewer failing grades than did other students; female students in the transition program group benefited the most in terms of socialization, self-esteem, and academic performance (Cognato, 1999).

Bringing Middle School and High School Educators Together

Successful high school transition programs depend on middle and high school administrators, counselors, and teachers working together to share information about the programs, courses, curriculum, and requirements of their respective schools (George, Stevenson, Thomason, & Beane, 1992; Hertzog et al., 1996).
One structure that facilitates such sharing is the vertical team, which includes teachers, administrators, and occasionally counselors across grade levels and schools. This team meets to assess and align curriculum. Middle school teachers involved in vertical teaming say that the process helps them understand the curriculum at each level and prepare their students for the transition to high school. Working with students and parents from middle and high school, the vertical team also provides an excellent structure to develop transition program activities.

A Seamless Transition

The transition from middle school to high school can be a significant turning point. Most students will rise to the new challenges they face. But others may stumble at this point and begin the slide toward academic failure—especially if they have received inadequate preparation in middle school and insufficient support to ease the transition.
Educators need to understand that a smooth and successful transition into high school begins in the middle grades. With this understanding, middle school and high school educators can work together to structure their programs and curriculums so that young adolescents experience a seamless transition and start off on the road to high school success.

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Children's Defense Fund. (2004). Key facts about American children [Online]. Available: www.childrensdefense.org/data/keyfacts.asp

Cognato, C. A. (1999, October). The effects of transition activities on adolescent self-perception and academic achievement during the progression from eighth to ninth grade. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Middle Schools Association, Orlando, Florida.

Cooper, C. (1999). Beyond the bake sale: How parent involvement makes a difference. Learning Point, 1(3), 4–8.

Eccles, J., Midgley, C., & Adler, T. F. (1984). Grade-related changes in the school environment: Effects on achievement motivation. In J. G. Nicholls (Ed.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 3) (pp. 283–331). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

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Hertzog, C. J., & Morgan, P. L. (1999). Transition: A process not an event. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Hertzog, C. J., Morgan, P. L., Diamond, P. A., & Walker, M. J. (1996). Transition to high school: A look at student perceptions. Becoming, 7(2), 6–8.

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Kaufman, P., Alt, M. N., & Chapman, C. (2001). Dropout rates in the United States: 2000, NCES 2002-114. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Lehr, C. A., Johnson, D. R., Bremer, C. D., Cosio, A., & Thompson, M. (2004). Essential tools: Increasing rates of school completion. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Letrello, T. M., & Miles, D. D. (2003). The transition from middle school to high school: Students with and without learning disabilities share their perceptions. The Clearing House, 79(4), 212–214.

Mac Iver, D. J. (1990). Meeting the needs of young adolescents: Advisory groups, interdisciplinary teaching teams, and school transition programs. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(6), 458–464.

Mizelle, N. B. (1995, April). Transition from middle school into high school: The student perspective. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, California.

Mizelle, N. B., & Irvin, J. L. (2000). Transition from middle school into high school. Middle School Journal, 31(5), 57–61.

Oates, J., Flores, R., & Weishew, N. (1998). Achieving student success in inner-city schools is possible, provided. . . . Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 21(3), 51–62.

Paulson, S. E., Marchant, G. J., & Rothlisberg, B. A. (1998). Early adolescents' perceptions of patterns of parenting, teaching, and school atmosphere. Journal of Early Adolescence, 18(1), 5–26.

Reyes, O., Gillock, K., & Kobus, K. (1994). A longitudinal study of school adjustment in urban, minority adolescents: Effects of a high school transition program. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(3), 341–369.

Southern Regional Education Board. (2002). Opening doors to the future: Preparing low-achieving middle grades students to succeed in high school. Atlanta, GA: Author.

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