Preparing Students for the Transition to High School

High School Week provides a safe environment for students to struggle and learn

By: Vanessa Scanfeld, Sean Robertson, Leah Weintraub, Vincent Dotoli


The transition to high school is a vulnerable time. As students navigate a heavier workload and greater independence, they struggle to make the small decisions needed to stay on track, and to know when and how to ask for help. For many, it is a defining moment in establishing an academic identity. Even students who were high performers in middle school are at risk of adjusting their self-perception when they stumble.

High School Week

High School Week serves as an on-ramp, exposing eighth graders to a simultaneous increase in responsibility and decrease in structure by adopting the scheduling, routines, and expectations of high school. This is an opportunity for students to struggle and make mistakes in a low-stakes environment and then learn from the experience. Held two or three times in the spring of eighth grade, High School Week has four basic components (1) preparation, (2) immersion, (3) reflection, and (4) repetition.

Preparation

Before High School Week begins, we set aside three 35-minute periods to discuss and prepare for the program.

Day 1: Introduction to High School Week. During the first session, we introduce the schedule, workload, and new privileges, as well as our expectations and strategies for safety and decision making. We also share the self-evaluation students will complete at the end of the week and leave plenty of time for questions.

Day 2: Planning for individual success. Students plan individually, writing responses to the following questions:

  • What kind of environment do I need to complete my work effectively?
  • How will I stay organized for assignments with less teacher monitoring?
  • How will I use free periods?
  • How will I balance work and social time?
  • How will I make sure I get back to school on time when I leave campus?
  • How will I manage a challenge in an independent environment?
  • What is going to make it hard to succeed? How will I overcome these challenges?

Day 3: Setting ground rules. During High School Week, Harlem Academy students are allowed to leave campus during free periods. In preparation, the class plans collectively around how they will stay safe, make responsible decisions, and represent the school. We post the guidelines in various locations, including on the sign-out sheet, as an ongoing reminder.

Immersion

Prepped with plans for how they will navigate the upcoming tasks, students begin High School Week. Key components include:

Heavier workload. Students are given multiple major assignments that require independent scheduling and organization. These assignments are achievable if a student works on them each day but almost impossible to complete the evening before the due date.

Free periods. Students have several blocks of time during the school day (lunch, recess, some co-curricular blocks, and study hall) with significant independence to make their own choices for planning their time. Students can use this time to complete their work, connect with teachers, or spend time with friends.

Open campus. Students have a self-monitored classroom and freedom (with parental permission) to leave campus during free periods in small groups with no formal oversight of their activities or location.

Less feedback. During this week, teachers continue to monitor student behavior but do not engage in real-time coaching. Instead, students receive a report of their performance at the end of the week.

Students are expected to arrive on time, attend all classes, manage their independent time, take responsibility for their decisions, and complete assignments to a high standard.

Reflection

The first High School Week is usually sobering for eighth graders. Most students stumble along the way, some more severely than others. We dedicate significant time to reflect on the experience, helping students to identify when and why they faltered and to outline strategies for avoiding the same problems in the future.

Day 1: How did I do? Immediately following High School Week, students rate their performance in a range of critical areas. For each, students have space to write about specific challenges that were hard to overcome and techniques that worked for them, reviewing performance in the following areas:

  • Being on time and prepared for the start of classes
  • Completing a week-long reading and writing assignment
  • Independently preparing for a test
  • Keeping schoolwork and personal belongings organized
  • Maintaining behavior that supported a focused learning environment
  • Asking for help when needed
  • Maintaining behavior that kept with the School Creed's description of compassion: inclusion of others, listening carefully, speaking kindly
  • Maintaining behavior that kept with the School Creed's description of integrity: choosing to do what is right, even when it is hard or no one is watching, and being honest and reflective

Day 2: How did my perceptions match the data? On the second day, the teacher shares data regarding several behavior metrics tracked in every class, such as on-time arrival, completing assignments to expectations, following directions, etc. Students are also asked to quantify specific behaviors, including:

  • What percentage of your homework (estimate) was completed and turned in on time?
  • On average, how many hours per day did you:

Students use this information to evaluate their decision making, consider opportunities for improvement, and revise and strengthen their reflection.

Day 3: What is my plan for the future? Students then shape one or two observable, high-leverage goals. For example, a student who struggled to complete their weeklong writing assignment might write, "If I have not finished my writing assignment, I will spend at least 1 hour working on it before using a free period for socializing." During this block, the teacher speaks with each student individually, providing concrete feedback and support in developing strong goals.

Repetition

One of the keys to this program's success is repetition. After the process of trying, failing, and reflecting, students need an opportunity to try again. A second and third chance allows them to begin to build strong habits through intentional practice and gain confidence that they can handle the transition to high school and ultimately thrive there.

Subsequent High School Weeks largely mirror the first in terms of implementation. Depending on where the class is struggling, we add new components, such as a daily homework reflection to track whether it was completed on time, completed late, or incomplete.

In addition, the self-reflection is expanded to include the following questions:

  • Did you achieve the goal you set during your last reflection? What went well? Where did you stumble?
  • In which areas did you improve compared to the previous High School Week?
  • In which area(s) did you continue to struggle?
  • What are some specific routines and habits that you think you could develop in the last weeks of school to better prepare you for a positive and smooth transition to high school?

Collaborating with Parents

High School Week is a great opportunity for families to think about, discuss, and support a parallel set of goals at home. In our initial letter to families, we encourage them to ease some structure during these weeks and to talk with their child about taking responsibility for their decisions and getting their work done on their own. We also invite parents for evening sessions at the school to explain the program in more detail, share initial results, and discuss ways parents can support the transition to high school at home.

What We've Seen

The mix of more work, less structure, and less real-time feedback is usually a wake-up call for students.

Let's take Jayde, for example. She is a strong student, but during her first High School Week, she sometimes struggled to be prepared at the beginning of class and didn't always have her homework ready. For the second High School Week, her goal was: "Get everything done on time." Teachers worked with her to make her goal more concrete and actionable. Ultimately, it was, "End activities 10 minutes before the start of class and choose two periods (one in the middle of the day and one in the afternoon) to get work done and still have free time in the evening."

She succeeded, earning top recognition from her teachers in every class! During the second High School Week reflection, she considered what additional factors made it a success and developed the following plan of action to take with her to high school.

In our annual survey, we ask graduates about the extent to which they were prepared to succeed in a range of areas, including the workload with high school. Students regularly cite High School Week with responses like this one: "High School Week prepared me for all the projects, essays, and tests we had due on one day."

In a recent interview, a graduate reflected, "In the past, I had time-management problems. When we had High School Week I was like, 'Oh, wow! This is what I might have to do every night.' And I feel like this year, I've done a good job of doing all my homework on time."

When so much of a student's success hinges on their attitude—on their self-efficacy and belief that their success lies in their own hands—we have found this program to be invaluable in arming students not just with the skills, but also the confidence they need to succeed during this important period of transition.


Vanessa Scanfeld is the strategy director at Harlem Academy in New York.
vscanfeld@harlemacademy.org

Sean Robertson is the lead middle school history teacher at Harlem Academy.
srobertson@harlemacademy.org

Leah Weintraub is the middle school director at Harlem Academy.
lweintraub@harlemacademy.org

Vincent Dotoli is the founder and head of school at Harlem Academy.
vdotoli@harlemacademy.org

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.

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