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From Easy Transition to Easy Year



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Gone are the days -- thankfully -- when students were dropped into middle or high school with a schedule and left to self-navigate their way into the next level of academia. With researchers finding that successful transition programs can mean more successful students, sending and receiving schools are working harder and more cooperatively to help students make the passage from one school to another. Included: Educators share their thoughts about easing transitions.

Groggy from waking at dawn and dressing in the dark, the anxiety you taste in your mouth is all that keeps your empty stomach from heaving upward. Dropped into a land of giants, you scan the human rush hour traffic for a guide in this new world. A bell sounds and you freeze, hoping for a hint of what to do next -- and then you are body-checked into a locker. Welcome to middle/high school.

Many people can remember the jitters, or even the terror, of the first day in a new school. For decades, the movement of students from one grade or school to another was considered routine and unremarkable. Often the first time students saw their new school was just before the first bell rang in September.

Research is showing, though, that positive transition experiences not only can set the tone for a year -- but an entire academic career. The more extensive and supportive transition programs are throughout a school career, and the more people who are involved -- especially parents -- the more likely students are to complete high school, some studies indicate. Many elementary, middle, and high school staffs now are working together to ensure transitions are more flowing and less jarring.

"Our focus is on successful student transitions," said Diane Finch, guidance coordinator for the Anne Arundel County Schools in Maryland. "Articulation is not just a process, it's an event. How students transition sets the path for success. We try to teach them skills we teach them to be resourceful and self-advocates, so they can get the help they need."


To be most effective, transition programs need to be more than an hour-long orientation assembly; they should be a process, according to "Transition from Middle School into High School," an article in Middle School Journal.

Most transition programs focus on the moves to middle and high school; contact with the new school can start by the middle of the grade before.


More on Transitions

Read more about helping students make transitions in these Education World articles:

Schools Find Many Ways to Say "Welcome Back"

A Call for Better Middle School Transitions

Helping students transition is at the core of middle school life. Staff members spend part of the first year helping students acclimate to sixth grade. Then, in many schools, they have a year off before they start prepping the eighth graders to enter high school. "Middle schools are in a unique position," said Chris Toy, principal (retired) of Freeport (Maine) Middle School. "In a middle school consisting of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, students and their families are experiencing major changes in two out of the three years in middle school."


At Griffin Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida, everyone from administrators to students is involved in helping the new students feel welcome, principal Michelle Gayle said. Guidance counselors and the assistant principal for curriculum, as well as elementary school alumni, visit the "feeder" elementary schools to talk about the differences in class offerings and expectations, and answer questions from the fifth graders.

The sixth-graders-to-be also visit the middle school for half a day, where student ambassadors take them on a tour, and they attend a welcome program, musical presentations, and a general assembly. Students return with their parents for an evening curriculum fair, during which they meet faculty members and learn about the materials they will use in class. Members of the PTO also are available to talk about parent groups at the school.

"Parents and students love this evening and welcome the opportunity to get acquainted with the new school and the staff," Gayle said.

In the spring, fifth graders register for their sixth grade classes, and fifth grade teachers and the students' parents sign off on the course selections.

As part of Freeport's transition program, parents of incoming students meet with a panel of current middle school students who talk about how they adjusted to middle school. "The parents seem to relax when they see happy, healthy kids from the 'old' school," Toy said.

Parents' presence during transition and orientation programs, as well as throughout the year, is critical, added Finch of Anne Arundel Schools. "It's very important for parents to be involved -- they are an important part of a safety net. Kids may say, 'Leave me alone,' but they don't mean it."


Increasing contact with feeder schools also is becoming more common. Last year staff members from Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge, Virginia, began meeting with teachers from nearby R. Dean Kilby Elementary School. Faculty members from the two schools even competed in a basketball game.

"We were adopting the same best practices model -- we thought it made sense [for the schools] to work together," J. Thomas Payne, Fred Lynne's principal said. "There are so many things we can gain by talking with fourth and fifth grade teachers. We'd like to invite the fifth grade teachers over [to the middle school.] We could find out if there are any strategies those teachers use that work with particular kids."

"We're trying to make that teacher connection," added Caroline Delafleur, Kilby's principal. "We're trying to help our teachers understand how important it is for them to do their jobs well, so the middle school teachers can do their jobs well."

As part of the middle school transition period, Payne talks with fifth graders at the elementary schools, and the fifth graders visit the middle school. Counselors from other feeder elementary schools also meet at Fred Lynne to learn about the middle school program. "We all have to understand how kids got to where they are," Payne said. "It makes it easier for them to go on to high school."

When it is time for the eighth graders to move on, high school counselors and coaches meet with students at Fred Lynne, to talk about high school life, magnet, and athletic programs.


Many eighth graders approach high school with both excitement and apprehension. They fear getting lost, both physically and emotionally, in larger, more impersonal schools.


Introducing freshmen to their new surroundings and connecting them with people before school starts, though, can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. "There seems to be enough literature saying that that if you are going to lose a student, it would happen early in his or her career," Andrew Blaha, the associate principal at South Milwaukee (Wisconsin) High School. "They need to make a connection with the school early in their careers. The intent is to get the kids locked-in during their freshman year."

Long before students enter South Milwaukee High, high school counselors visit them at the middle school and get to know them. Eighth graders also visit the school and talk with high school students and administrators.

Some rising freshmen who need additional support are assigned an upper class mentor before they enroll, and the students meet twice a quarter, Blaha said.

Freshmen also start school a day before the rest of the student body, so they have a chance to meet faculty and find their way around before the building is filled. They return to their homerooms twice during the first day to discuss how their day is going.

All ninth graders also complete a questionnaire about themselves, their interests, and their families. After Blaha reads the forms, he meets briefly with every freshman. The school is expecting between 325 and 350 freshmen this year. "Then they look at you like, 'Wow, this guy is really human.'"


To get eighth graders reflecting on what they can bring to high school and what they want to accomplish, some high schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, ask eighth graders to "apply" for the position of high school freshman. Students complete an application listing their social and academic skills, and then they are interviewed by high school students. The upperclassmen critique the rising frosh on their readiness for high school. "This stresses that school is their first job," said Finch, the school district's guidance coordinator.

Most of the high schools in the district -- there are 12 -- offer peer mentoring and a freshmen academy, a support program, she added.


Summer programs also can help prepare students academically and socially for the next four years. Santa Paula (California) High School started offering a 3-week summer institute in 1997 for entering students whose test scores were below the 50th percentile. That year the school switched from offering several levels of classes to a college-preparation curriculum for everyone, said Lisa Schmidt, coordinator of the school's summer institute.

While designed for students who need extra help, the summer program is open to all incoming freshmen, Schmidt told Education World. This year, 165 out of 400 members of the class of 2007 participated. Santa Paula has four feeder middle schools.

"Some are coming from smaller feeder schools, and this is a chance to get socialized and meet other kids," Schmidt told Education World. "The numbers [attending] keep going up every year. The goal is to get all ninth graders to attend." All students also participate in transition programs in the spring and late summer.

Students take six classes during the three-week session: reading, writing, high school mathematics, computer literacy, leadership, and a social science class. Motivational speakers and leadership activities also are scheduled. All students who complete the program receive five elective credits. The school is seeking grant money to offer a pre-honors summer program next year, Schmidt said.

"I believe it is important because if kids see an adult in the summer, they know they can go to them in the fall if they have a problem, and it will be easier," according to Schmidt. "It's a way to build connections and links with other adults and kids. The school benefits and the kids benefit. They come in knowing the rules, the dress code, and procedures. It saves us some time in September."


The growing emphasis on transition programs stems from realizations that they are based in common sense and supported by research findings, some educators told Education World.

"I think we're becoming better at our jobs," said June Million, spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), said. "It just makes sense to indoctrinate people."

The NAESP also is beginning to research transition programs between pre-school and kindergarten, she added. Some schools already have programs for the youngest students. Many schools in Tallahassee, Florida, hold breakfast activities in the spring where pre-school students take a short pre-kindergarten skills test and their parents tour the school, see classes, and meet teachers, according to Gayle, a principal at Griffin Middle School in Tallahassee.

"[Transitions] are becoming more of an issue because we're looking more at how kids are and are not performing at all levels," said John Nori, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

The idea is for adults to help students remain connected to their education from the moment they enter school, even though the buildings and people change on their journey to a diploma.

"It takes all of us to prepare a kid for high school and be successful," said middle school principal Payne.