February 2008 • Volume 11 • Number 3 • Pages 16-17
Helping Us Help Them:
View from the High School
J. Howard Johnston and Lew Armistead
Entering high school can be one of the most exciting times in young adolescents' lives. They have a chance to expand their circle of friends, experience more diverse learning opportunities, and discover and develop their special interests through expanded student activity programs.
Yet, as we all know, it can also be a time of uncertainty: new faces, new expectations, and much anxiety about what lies ahead. Parents and students alike may be apprehensive about the academic and social scene in the new, often larger school. Apprehensions can inhibit an otherwise positive growth experience for young adolescents unless they are prepared to take those first few steps.
While many middle schools already have programs in place, high school principals view transition from a different perspective. Several high school leaders who participated in The Principals' Partnership, a six-year old program of the Union Pacific Foundation, suggest that middle school educators can help prepare parents and students for the transition to high school.
1. Help students and parents learn as much about the high school as possible before the year starts.
Since high school presents many new opportunities and challenges, students should have a basic understanding of how the high school operates before the school year begins.
"Before school, parents and students should visit the school and get as much first-hand information as possible," recommends Fulton M. Brinkley, principal at Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, California. "Talk with teachers and other students so they won't be strangers when school starts."
Typically, guidance counselors meet with rising high school students to help them select their high school classes and to share academic expectations. Many high schools have orientation programs during the summer to allow students to become familiar with the building and with the cocurricular offerings.
However, if there isn't an organized program—or even if there is—parents and students should meet with representatives of the school to learn about the full range of high school programs, including sports and other student activities. One of the biggest differences between middle and high schools is the selection of these activities in which youngsters can learn important life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, planning, and decision making.
Large high schools can be physically intimidating as well. A tour of the school's physical facilities, especially if incoming students can visit their classes for the upcoming year, quells the fear of getting lost.
2. Encourage parents to stay involved in their student's education.
The temptation for parents and other family members is to move away from their children's learning as they get older. Yet at the same time that adolescents seek their own identity, listen to their peers, and push away from adults, they are making academic and social decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. Family support is essential now.
Middle school educators should work with the high school administrators to ensure parents have an opportunity to meet their child's counselor and teachers. Parents should also be encouraged to participate in high school events such as back-to-school nights and to read the school Web site and newsletters to stay informed of upcoming events that will be important to their students, such as career and college fairs.
Parents must also be alert to other opportunities that are important for their child's future success, but which may not strike their child as particularly significant. An internship, special training program, or volunteer opportunity can improve students' options for higher education or post-school employment, but may escape a young student's attention.
3. Stress the fact that expectations may be different in high school.
It's essential that students and parents understand that high school students are expected to assume greater responsibility for their learning.
Kent Mann, principal at Grand Island Senior High School in Nebraska, shares that many high schools have not adopted block scheduling, so middle school students who are used to four 90-minute block classes a day must get used to seven or eight shorter classes—which translates into seven or eight preparations to complete for each day. "In high school we expect students to understand their schedule, get to their next class, complete assignments, and be ready for the class," he says.
One of the greatest helps parents and middle school teachers can offer transitioning students as they enter high school is to make sure they are organized, according to Greg Emmel, principal at Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska.
"When kids enter high school, they are likely to have more homework and more tests," Emmel explains. "Parents should make sure that they develop good study habits, have a specific time to complete homework assignments, and use some sort of planner. We see a trend in middle schools to go to block schedules where students don't have homework because they have enough time to complete work in the longer periods. Then, all of a sudden [in high school] they have a lot of homework. Kids don't always expect this and don't understand the importance of staying on top of assignments. This is where family support can be crucial."
Paul Cook, principal of Cleveland High School in Portland, Oregon, points out that accepting greater responsibility may be difficult for adolescents.
"When students transition to high school, they face some tough management issues," he says. "Creating direction and structure for themselves can be a big leap, whether it's getting to seven classes on time each day or dealing with an open campus situation at lunch. This isn't as simple as it sounds for many adolescents, and parents and middle level educators can help prepare students for these growth experiences."
4. Help students understand and learn from mistakes.
As students accept greater accountability for their learning, they are likely to make mistakes. That is part of the normal educational process. One of the biggest challenges for parents and educators as young adolescents transition from middle level to high school is to let them make mistakes and learn from them.
"Parents need to understand that in the long run students benefit from experiencing natural consequences of their actions," says Jan Borja, principal of New Trier High School's Northfield Campus in Illinois. "High school offers the opportunity to prepare young people for the rest of their lives, not just for the next four years."
5. Emphasize reading skills.
Reading is just as essential in high school as in the lower grades, Borja says. "The more reading and writing students do, the better. Parents and middle school educators should continue to encourage youngsters to read regardless of what they read. During summer especially, students should find topics that interest them for recreational reading in addition to any assignments provided by the school."
Collaborating for Success
Helping young adolescents and their parents understand what to expect and prepare for in the coming years will help students begin high school on the right foot.
The Principals' Partnership provides several resources on its Web site that can benefit middle level educators. Visit www.principalspartnership.com
J. Howard Johnston is a lead consultant for The Principals' Partnership, a professor of secondary education at the University of South Florida, and a frequent presenter at NMSA conferences.
Lew Armistead, communications consultant to The Principals' Partnership, is president of LA Communications in Hollywood, Maryland.
Copyright © 2008 by National Middle School Association