A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Monday, July 10, 2006

Confronting the transition to high school

Mr. McNamar posted some excellent points at The Daily Grind regarding the struggle of freshmen as they transition to high school, and Graycie has a thought-provoking post of her own on the same subject entitled Transition Years.

This subject has been of great interest to me, since I was a middle school teacher for many years. Anyone who has been following this blog from its inception knows that while I adore middle school kids, I am no fan of the "middle school philosophy." I don't think we help our kids get an education by allowing them to coast academically for several years while they try to get their heads on straight-- I don't believe that should be the primary goal of education.

So I found this news article interesting:
"It's giving us better perspective. We're learning to be proactive rather than reactive."

These are not the words of a junior vice president for internal marketing at an annuity brokerage. They were spoken by Demarco DeAndre Shaw, a young man on the brink of his freshman year at the city's Clyde C. Miller Career Academy High School.

Let's acknowledge that "proactive" is not a word normally bantered about by high school freshmen. Ditto "synergy," "prioritize" and - especially - "self-awareness."

What, then, was Shaw talking about as he sat at a table with a group of classmates last week in the Miller cafeteria?

Precisely what St. Louis schools Superintendent Creg Williams hoped Shaw and other freshmen would say when he added a class on self-development to the summer school curriculum.

To understand how Williams concluded that next year's ninth-graders could use a course with the "7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens" as a text, it's instructive to look at the most recent group of freshmen to enter the city's high school.

At one point last winter, over 70 percent of that ninth-grade class lacked one or more of the credits needed to move to the 10th grade. Alarmed by the numbers, Williams yanked the entire freshman class out of Vashon High School halfway through the school year and installed them in a new ninth-grade academy a few blocks away.

By the time classes ended, the performance of ninth-graders had improved somewhat. Meanwhile, Williams decided to launch a pre-preemptive strike he hopes will keep the district's history of low-performing freshmen from repeating itself.

First, he mandated that incoming ninth-graders - with a few exemptions - attend summer school.

Second, in addition to classes aimed at improving math and language arts skills, he introduced a class meant to teach freshmen what it means and what it takes to succeed at the high school level.

"It's important they understand that they have to change their lifestyle to adapt to high school," said Williams.

To put students on the path, Williams assigned the teen edition of the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," the best-selling self-help tome by Stephen R. Covey.

The "7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens," written by Covey's son Sean Covey, provides a litany of common-sense advice, from developing effective study habits to resisting negative peer pressure.

"It gives them the tools they need to be successful in high school, a head start for what's to come," said Jacqueline Farwell, a Clyde C. Miller counselor who teaches the effective teens class.

Right now, Covey's bromides are just words in a book. But Miller freshman Bria Harris can already see how one of the seven habits - putting first things first (also known as prioritizing) - will help her become more effective once school begins in August.

"You have too much to worry about in high school - homework, studying, your reputation, problems at home, the kids at school. This will really help," she said.

While prioritizing is all well and good, Harris and Shaw agree with Covey that another "P" word is the "key to unlocking all the other habits."

Being proactive, writes Covey, means "I am the force. I am the captain of my life. I can choose my attitude. I'm responsible for my own happiness or unhappiness. I am in the driver's seat of my destiny, not just a passenger."

Or, to put it another way, "When somebody tells you that you need to go somewhere with them, you tell them you have to study."

So said Shaw, spoken from the perspective of a proactive ninth-grader.

The transition to high school can be so brutal for so many students. Give the (relatively new) superintendent credit for bold action. At the same time he pulled the ninth graders out, he also arranged for upperclassmen who had demonstrated potential to attend classes at a local public university, as a taste of what they could accomplish if they dedicated themselves to academic success.

Let me tell you, when he pulled the 9th graders out of their school in the middle of the year, there was some uproar. One kid even was verbally disrepsectful to the superintendent at an assembly he held with the students (he was shocked by this behavior, a bit naively.)

Perhaps he should go further. I wonder if, once he pulled the 9th graders out and gave them the summer school shock treatment, Mr. Williams should start building a high school around those students who have undergone intervention as an experiment to determine the effect of the interventions free of corrosive influences.

It is obvious something has to be done given the crisis in the St. Louis Public Schools, and indeed nearly all urban school districts across the nation.


At 7/10/06, 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone have a solution to the problem of not retaining middle school students?
The argument I've always read is that we can't end up with 15, 16 year olds mixed in with 12 yr olds.
Should we have another facility available? Or maybe place them in a 'pre-freshman' class within high school? Either way seems to cost a lot of money.
In our area we eventually built an alternative school for the hardest cases. I used to teach a sexual responsiblity class to the kids when the 'school' was one room in an old house. Now it is about the size of a small elementary school.

At 7/10/06, 1:38 PM, Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Great article. I especially like the idea of having the incoming 9th graders spend time at school during the summer. I think of all the summer camps that kids attend. Why not have a week long summer camp, two weeks before school starts, and mandate that all incoming 9th graders attend. I mean, if we are serious about education. The problem will always be the status quo parents and status quo funding.

At 7/10/06, 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your summer camp idea, mr. mcnamar. It reminds me of the orientation week universities have before classes start. It's a great way to get students introduced to the atmosphere, the staff, and allow them another important milestone in their lives that remind them they're growing up and gaining more responsibilities.

When I taught middle school English, I was extremely frustrated with parents and staff alike who would excuse poor retention skills and even worse behavior on horomones and let things slide.

At 7/10/06, 2:27 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Mellowout has it exactly. One of my students went to Florida State, I think it was, and was required to take a class in the summer before to get her oriented to everything.

At 7/10/06, 2:52 PM, Blogger graycie said...

Around here the parents would nail admin hides to the barn if anything like St. Louis was suggested. (I love the idea -- but parents? Sheesh!)

At 7/10/06, 3:39 PM, Blogger Mikey said...

Hi again. Thanks for the email ...

With regard to the Progressive Blog Wire, please email me your email address, and I'll add you to the list of people who can add to the site, and I'll add your site as a member link. Your email to me came thru as no-reply@blogger...


- Mikey (ascent2dissent@yahoo.com)

At 7/11/06, 5:20 AM, Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

First of all, anyone who teaches middle school is a saint in my book! I think it takes a certain type of personality to deal with that age group.

Secondly, I have a lot of respect for Williams for taking some bold steps. He came into the school district that carried a LOT of baggage.

There's ongoing in-fighting within the board, school personnel who leak confidential information, and a long history within the district (preceding Williams) where people have exercised their personal agendas at the expense of effectively educating students.

Frankly, I think the board, teachers and parents need to support Williams' initiatives. I've seen from the inside what's going on within St. Louis Public Schools. It's not pretty. The fact that Williams has demonstrated a willingness to remain in a district whose turmoil has been reported nationwide - and who is under continual scrutiny by the press - really speaks to the superintendent's character and drive, I think.

I first took note of Williams some three years ago when he was still in Philadelphia. I thought he was a visionary then, and I think he's a visionary now.

It's a given that a large district - mired in controversy and a history of disengaging students and parents - is not going to change overnight.

I think it was a great idea to make summer school mandatory for 8th graders. Those students who needed remedial instruction are getting it. Those who don't need any intervention can take enrichment classes.

I've long favored an extended year by school districts. And I certainly favor helping 8th graders make that transition to 9th grade.

This is a great post, and I hope lots of people read it. Heck, they should bookmark your site!

At 7/11/06, 9:19 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks, dcs. Of course, today the follow-up to this story was more bad news about teachers with no assignments, laid-off administrators (given the top-heavy SLPS, my response would be that this is actually GOOD news), and a budget which has still not been settled. My response? The same as yours-- the place didn't get into a mess overnight, and Mr. Williams has to overcome an established bureaucracy and other interests whose very livelihood is predicated on NOT having someone in charge.

But that school board? Perhaps the member who, when she tested positive for drugs in her system, claimed that other members had spiked her coffee with cocaine is a telling example of what can stand in the way of a school district actually focusing on education-- she also tried to put a bizarre and very public hex of some sort on one of her "enemies."

Then there are those who think the a school district is their own private sinecure to provide employment to their girlfriend's relatives, as has happened at another St. Louis-area district.

The decay at the center of the urban core of so many of our cities starts with the schools.

At 7/11/06, 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our parents would have a fit if anything like that was suggested. As it is they are shocked that their little darlings do not do as well in high school. There needs to be some type of transition intervention. We've discussed using the 7 Habits work in our freshman mentoring class. It just seems we can't get the entire building on the same page. I'm not truly sure that admin recognizes the real issues faced in ninth grade.

At 7/11/06, 11:44 PM, Blogger EHT said...

When I first entered college I had to move to school to attend a newbie program called Bridge so that by the time classes started I was settled in and already knew several people.

When my son entered 9th grade it was a fantastic situation. It was a brand new school so the 9th grade was the largest class with a few 10th graders (less than 75). Each year they added the next grade. Basically he was in an isolated 9th grade situation and he transitioned very well. I don't think he would have done as well at another high school in our county.

BTW, having a small celebration over at my place. Love to have you....bring your friends!:)

At 7/12/06, 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have a summer transition "camp" at my high school for incoming freshman. Having taught the freshmen, I'd rather it was more of a summer "school."

Actually, I think both the students *and* parents of incoming freshmen should be part of a learning program. I'd imagine a three-hour Saturday seminar would work for most parents. But when I was teaching freshmen, it was very much a process of teaching both the kids and the parents what it meant to be in high school. Too many of them either let their kids fly loose (expecting them to act grown up suddenly), or coddled them and were stunned that they were actually required to be responsible for their behavior and their work. (No, Mom, sorry, I can't check your student's backpack for his assignment each day and call you when I can't find it.)

At 7/12/06, 11:19 AM, Blogger Fred said...

The biggest failure concerning the transition is the may our particular feeder middle schools treat their students.

How is it that some of my ninth graders:
- have trouble spelling the words school or government?
- read at the 4th grade level?
- have no organizational skills?

Etc, etc. They're pushing kids to high school that should have had more time in the lower grades. And, some of them should have headed straight for vocational school.

I agree with DCS...those teaching middle school have the hardest jobs. It's got to be enormously stressful in that environment.

We're too politically incorrect nowadays to take the tough action required to deal with these issues.

I'm tired of the "it's not their fault" excuse. Those people who espouse that opinion should teach ninth grade. They'll change their tune.


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