Change can be challenging for adolescents, especially given the fact that young people between the ages of 10 and 15 undergo extreme personal developments. Their patterns of thinking, physical maturation, and desire for peer acceptance contribute to these rapid developments, making holistic support during this time of utmost importance. Add the transition from eighth to ninth grade and their lives can quickly feel overwhelming. Understanding the possible pressure our students feel when faced with the transition from middle to high school should activate our sense of compassion. The more we strive to understand where adolescents are in their development, the better we can accommodate their needs and serve as critical support as they prepare for this big leap. When students know what to expect, levels of anxiety decrease, providing a greater likelihood of an effective transition.
Preparing our Eighth Graders
Our hope is that your school has put some transitional procedures and activities, like the practical suggestions we provide, in place to prepare students for what they will see in ninth grade. Using combination locks is a great way to prepare students for often dreaded high school locker challenges. Allow students the time and space to tinker with locks to acclimate themselves with the workings of the lock and increase their ability to crack the code. Middle school teachers should also emphasize the importance of timely class changes and provide opportunities for practice. Issuing middle school yearbooks and implementing structured, ongoing mentoring programs are other easy-to-implement layers that mimic the high school experience.
Athletics, clubs, and other extracurricular activities provide additional opportunities to support the social and emotional transition of students from middle to high school, so never downplay the power of these experiences. Focusing on the similarities and differences in academic expectations is another simple, yet often overlooked strategy. Middle and high school teachers can collaborate to discuss how content vertically articulates from grade to grade, and then design opportunities to apply relevant components from this discussion back into the middle school classroom.
Middle school teachers should also continue to emphasize and provide feedback on adolescent-appropriate organizational skills, life skills, and soft skills. These are the ever-important skills that unintentionally go by the wayside because of the emphasis on academia. As you can see, giving students experiences similar to those of high school provides much needed context that students can reference when the actual transition arrives.
Building High School Connections
While normal, feelings of excitement, anticipation, and apprehension are stirred up in students pending the transitional year. The best way to counteract these feelings is to engage students in structured and unstructured conversations. Students will have questions about the social, academic, and procedural changes they will face, and we have the power to alleviate many of these concerns by simply devoting the time and space to do so. One quick way to get a jump on these concerns is to schedule a visit to the high school. During this time, students can observe the high school environment and see adolescent social aspects like the locker locations, the cafeteria, and the common areas. While physically at the high school, students can experience the bell schedule, navigate the map of the school, and peruse the student handbook. It is also wise to schedule a question and answer session with the freshmen teachers and students so that eighth grade students can receive answers to their questions and the freshmen teachers and students can offer advice.
A working relationship between the high school and feeder middle school(s) is imperative for student success during the transition from middle to high school. In addition to faculty members at different schools having open, working relationships, students should begin forming relationships with high school faculty prior to the ninth grade. One method you can use to do this is organized teacher visits. Middle school teachers visit high school subject-alike classrooms to observe classroom instruction and routines, and high school teachers visit middle school subject-alike classrooms for visibility and support of middle school students. These visits create a professional relationship as well as foster conversations about vertical alignment.
It is also important that administrators at both schools work together to bridge this transition. Ninth grade administrators can help feeder middle schools prepare for outside agency visits by conducting teacher observations and school visits. In addition, administrators at both schools should collaborate to best support students' learning and preparation. Furthermore, you can establish a specially trained ninth grade case manager to support students with special needs before transitioning them to another case manager for the remaining high school years.
At Camden High School (CHS) in Camden, South Carolina, our student experience begins for rising ninth graders in the spring of the eighth grade year. Our principal, ninth grade school counselors, athletic director, JROTC instructors, band director, and ninth grade assistant principal meet with all rising ninth graders at our feeder middle school to introduce CHS. The band and JROTC groups give a special performance and we review the registration guide with students. A support session for our feeder school's school counselors follows this experience to help ensure appropriate ninth grade student placement. These experiences precede our April Parent University that focuses on the ABCs of Ninth Grade at CHS. During Parent University, our principal, assistant principals, and school counselors host a workshop providing parents and rising ninth graders with information to make them feel more comfortable with the transition.
In conjunction with our feeder school, we also offer a summer bridge program at the high school for students who did not experience success in an eighth grade core class. This bridge program provides remediation in English and math courses and assistance with summer reading. During the summer, we hand-schedule rising ninth graders based on state assessment data, final course grades, and recommendations from the feeder middle school. This creates a schedule that is tailored to students' specific needs, increasing the likelihood of success during the ninth grade year.
Designing the Freshman Experience
To begin the school year, students' first day is a full day Freshman Orientation. This day is led by student leaders and includes information about procedures, tours, clubs, and athletics. Our focus on freshman success continues throughout the school year by emphasizing these elements and more. In attempts to continue a strong transition from middle to high school, CHS recently redesigned the ninth grade experience by developing a mission statement, vision statement, and motto that reflect our overall beliefs. The creation of a three-tier Freshman Transition Program also resulted.
Tier 1 includes all of the above experiences as well as a Leadership course that is required for all incoming freshmen. This course includes four domains: (I) Being a Bulldog: Introduction to the Bulldog Family; (II) Strategies for Success: Academic and Social; (III) Career and College Exploration: Incorporating School Counselors; and (IV) Leadership: Laws and Qualities. In addition, our ninth grade school counselors and our career development facilitator lead sections throughout the semester including Microburst soft skills training.
Tier 2 includes students who need additional time to meet eighth grade-level standards in reading or math courses or standardized testing. In addition to our Tier 1 experience, students who need additional support are enrolled in Secondary Literacy and/or Algebra 1 Mastery class during the fall semester of their ninth grade year. These courses explicitly teach reading, writing, numeracy, and study strategies using Mathematics Design Collaborative and Literacy Design Collaborative so our students can meet and exceed grade-level standards.
Tier 3 includes extensive interventions for identified students. A learning community led by a strong team of enthusiastic, expert teachers provides intentional, data-driven, student-centered instruction for these students. CHS offers additional academic support using research-based practices including flexible grouping, community mentoring, individualized instruction, and interdisciplinary curriculum. Using High Schools That Work concepts and other extensive educational research, we give students clearly defined standards for quality work, adequate support to achieve these standards, and an understanding of the relevance of curricular content and skills for their lives.
Let us never forget that ensuring the support of the whole child is the ultimate goal of providing strategic support for the eighth grade to ninth grade transition. As middle and high school educators, we must answer the call of this important work by locking arms with our students and stakeholders to do whatever it takes for student success. Please know that we understand the avenues mentioned above are not an exhaustive list, but sincerely hope that something piqued your interest to integrate in the upcoming school years.
Lesley Corner is the ninth grade assistant principal at Camden High School, Camden, South Carolina.
Fran Rogers, Ed.D. is the middle level academic specialist for Greenville County Schools in Greenville, South Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2020.