Students can struggle when they face that transition from middle level to high school and from high school to college or career. Now, along comes a pandemic, when kids are in school one day and homebound in their pajamas the next (with schedules varying week by week). Talk about tough transitions!
Advisers use all kinds of targeted initiatives to guide students through life’s scary phases, but one quality in particular provides a foundation that equips students to stay agile and ready for change in their future: a strong school culture of caring and community.
“It’s everybody helping everybody, which helps in all transitions,” says Roberta Bittel, Student Government Association (SGA) adviser at Canandaigua Academy in Canandaigua, NY; executive director for the New York State Council on Leadership and Student Activities; and president of the National Association of State Student Council Executive Directors.
For schools that build inclusive cultures, transition initiatives contribute to a virtuous circle. A welcoming school culture invites students to participate and succeed, while transition-directed programs promote a welcoming school culture.
“The most successful that a kid can be starts with their confidence of where they are,” says Terry D’Imperio, leadership teacher at Livonia Middle/High School in Livonia, NY. “What are my skills, and how can I use them to be productive in this situation?”
A sense of belonging is so important at Ocoee High School in Ocoee, FL, that the first day of school isn’t about academics, syllabi, and rules, says SGA adviser Wendy Cartwright. Instead, the day is devoted to short class sessions with icebreakers, pep rallies, and distribution of T-shirts designed by SGA officers (and paid for by the school principal).
“On that first day, you have the opportunity to make connections with your teachers, with the principal, and with your guidance counselor,” Cartwright says. “You’ve gotten a school T-shirt. You’ve attended a pep rally. You’ve learned our school fight song. You’ve made that connection with us.”
- Have students create presentations for classmates as part of a leadership project on school activities and clubs they can join. Research shows, “the ones involved in clubs or sports or activities normally are more successful because they feel that connection to the school,” Cartwright says.
- Invite adults to speak to leadership classes and share their career paths, no matter what directions they’ve taken. D’Imperio brings in her husband, who talks about his journey from computer programmer to middle level principal. “Transitioning isn’t as scary as it sounds as long as you have an open mind,” D’Imperio says.
- Build a network of go-to staff that students can reach out to, and make sure students know they can reach out.
Middle Level to High School
In western New York’s Depew Union Free School District, Depew High School personnel pinpoint the transition issues to address by scrutinizing research on the freshman year’s importance to high school success.
“If [freshmen] fail two classes, their chance of graduating is significantly reduced,” says leadership teacher Kelly Jeffords. “We try to make sure they’re not failing that freshman year so they’re still around four years later. Our graduation rate has improved. That’s our goal.”
Toward that end, the school created Freshman Academy, during which freshman teachers meet to discuss student successes and challenges. Together, they probe for such disconnects as what’s causing a successful middle level student to struggle in high school, or they share best practices between the teacher who sees a student doing well and the teacher who sees that same student failing.
“Freshman Academy gives us that little bridge to watch out a little bit better and look at students more holistically,” Jeffords says.
Ocoee High School’s incoming freshmen and other new students take the True Colors personality test to discover their leadership styles. Based on the results of what color category they fall into, the new students invent a True Colors school, complete with mascot, school colors, school song, and cheer. Later in the week, they get together with returning students of the same colors and teach them those school elements.
“From the very first week of school, it makes the new kids feel like they’re part of the organization, because they’re teaching the returners something,” Cartwright says.
Link Crew, a student mentoring program from The Boomerang Project, is a valuable tool for connecting freshmen to their school, advisers say. Through Link Crew, incoming students get a junior or senior mentor trained to show them the school, share expectations and traditions, and encourage involvement in activities.
“Since we’ve adopted Link Crew, we’ve never had kids picking on freshmen, because the seniors and juniors who are their Link leaders won’t allow it,” D’Imperio says.
And while Link Crew makes incoming students comfortable, notes Bittel, “it definitely makes the parents more comfortable, too.”
Parents also participate in freshman orientation at C.D. Hylton High School. The Prince William County school in Woodbridge, VA, is a “specialty school” concentrating on international studies and languages, so entering students don’t know a lot of their classmates. Students walk through condensed versions of their school days at orientation, with help from Student Council Association (SCA) members guiding them from class to class.
In the meantime, parents gather in the gym. There, they hear administrators and school board members discuss the upcoming school year, activities they can support to help their children succeed, as well as clubs and programs their children can join.
“The main goal is to ease students’ anxiety about coming to Hylton,” says SCA adviser Sue Hunter.
- Encourage students to pursue projects based on their interests. D’Imperio prompted a student who was passionate about cars and engines to teach his classmates what he knew. “To watch him do that in front of his classmates was magical, because he finally got a chance to shine,” she says.
- Host a “Freshman Academy” type of teacher meeting to share academic insights. This meeting can also reveal students’ personal challenges that one teacher might know but others may not.
- Consider a “buddy program,” giving student council members the chance to pair incoming freshmen with a junior or senior who shares their interests. “These buddies last for the first few weeks, but can also last throughout the year, and in some instances, for several years,” Hunter says.
- Outfit student mentors in distinctive shirts during the first few days of school so new students can easily find the person ready to answer questions.
High School to Beyond
The road to life after high school begins in ninth grade at Depew High School, when freshman leadership class students learn organization and time-management skills. Even in the earlier grades, students learn to prioritize and “find time for the big rocks,” Jeffords says.
Livonia High School offers Livonia Lunch and Learn—also known as L3—when alumni visit to discuss college and careers. Each month features a different theme, such as health care, politics, engineering, or first responders. “They have so much fun coming in,” D’Imperio says. “They’ll bring pens from their company or [note] pads or balloons.”
Link Crew participation also benefits upperclassmen, creating accountability that helps them blossom as they approach graduation. At one end-of-year awards assembly, D’Imperio says, a freshman getting an award was cheered on by a senior shouting, “That’s my Link!”
Ocoee High School celebrates seniors throughout the school year, “to encourage our underclassmen to want to become seniors,” Cartwright says. Events celebrate the accomplishments of AP students and academic achievers. Those in danger of not graduating but who get back on track are recognized for academic improvement. Students and parents get tutoring and assistance in such bewildering tasks as filling out the FAFSA.
And because not every student is college-bound, students learn that it’s possible to make a good living at something they enjoy, Jeffords says. “We tend to focus more on the skill sets the students have. What skills are you marketing, rather than what degree do you have?”
- Help students plan college visits, especially for students not likely to schedule college visits on their own. D’Imperio encouraged a student who didn’t see college in her future to lead a group visit to a local campus, and the school’s administration was so impressed that they offered her a scholarship.
- Push seniors to take full course loads. “We try not to have too many study halls so they get a wide picture of what’s possible,” D’Imperio says.
- Promote success via punch cards. As students complete the tasks that lead to college—filling out the FAFSA, applying to schools—they can fill out a punch card, earning prizes such as homecoming and prom tickets.
- Use other organizations, such as the National Academy of Finance, to drive participation. This group exposes students to expectations and work-based learning opportunities in finance, engineering, health sciences, information technology, and hospitality and tourism careers.
- Add trade and career training schools to the roster of military recruiters and college admissions offices invited to visit campus or make virtual presentations. “Not all kids go to college,” Bittel notes.
In a year of disruptions and virtual learning, D’Imperio sees a bright side: The fact that students get to watch their teachers learn and sometimes struggle. As a lesson in transitions, it shows students that “you’re not too old to learn. I don’t know everything and need to ask my students.”
Every morning, D’Imperio asks her virtual students to rank their mood from a 1 (should have stayed in bed) to a 5 (could run a marathon). It’s a check-in for D’Imperio, just to see who’s in front of her, and without naming names, she will offer to chat after class with the students who ranked a 1 that day.
During this past year, virtual pep rallies and virtual spirit weeks—during which students dressed in themed clothing and posted their pictures on social media—helped to sustain connections at Ocoee High School. The school held a homecoming ceremony, complete with homecoming court, during a basketball game. “We didn’t want those seniors to not be able to have that recognition just because of what we’re living through,” Cartwright says.
After a return to classrooms became optional, Cartwright’s school worked with parents whose children struggled with at-home schooling, encouraging face-to-face learning.
“We really need to focus on the kids who have to be here but don’t want to be here,” she says. “How do we help them want to be here?”
One of Cartwright’s returning students, Jake MacTavish, says he felt immediate improvement. Teachers and administrators were helpful as he and classmates trickled back into the classroom.
“They were very comfortable with me,” he says. “They didn’t act like I was an alien. They were very understanding and helped me transition.”
Jeffords’ district prioritized social-emotional learning—for instance, spending the first two weeks of the 2020–21 hybrid school year simply building relationships that could be sustained in remote settings.
“We still have kids who don’t turn on their cameras,” Jeffords says. “I’m not saying we’ve solved all of that, but if all you’re seeing is a name, at least you feel like you know that name. You can have conversations with that student.”
At Canandaigua Academy, a corps of caring teachers sends emails to homes, telling the parents of virtual students that their kids are doing great.
When the school offered tutoring during spring break for students struggling with remote learning, about 150 students accepted. In true virtuous circle-style, 90 more volunteered to tutor, including some with experience as Link Crew leaders.
“We are trying every avenue to reach the kids and take care of them and let them know we care,” Bittel says.
Create activities that encourage at-home students to turn on their cameras and engage. At Depew High School, a “Where are the Wildcats?” initiative encouraged students to turn on their cameras and talk by entering them into a gift card drawing.
Maintain the sense of community. Even a “prize bin” for students who come into the building and find pictures of school mascots posted around the building can generate excitement and remind students that they remain part of the school community.
Recruit students to promote student wellness. Two students at Canandaigua Academy developed “Me-First Mondays,” posting messages on social media reminding virtual-learning classmates to take care of such basics as taking a shower and doing their schoolwork.
Offer virtual learners “bonus days,” when they can come into the building for extra help and guidance.
As advisers know, every student is a unique bundle of passions, fears, dreams, and goals. Finding where each one fits within the school culture is the key to unlocking their potential. In a welcoming school community, students feel emboldened to take risks and, with a few nudges from caring teachers and administrators, transition seamlessly to the next phase of life.
Diane McCormick is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA.