Incoming! Tackling the Transition to High School

As Brandon walked into the counselor suite he seemed a bit nervous. He had been a freshman at Bellaire High School for nine weeks, and he was still finding his way. His pants were stained and his t-shirt and light jacket appeared well-traveled. He looked like an average ninth grader.

Initially he offered only one-word answers to the counselor’s questions. Then she pushed a bit more, and the wall began to crumble. Tears flowed as he described the “chaos” that greeted him every night as he fought to study and complete his homework. His three cousins and their parents had moved into his family’s two-bedroom apartment out of need, and now there were eight people stuffed inside the small home.

He had been a strong student in middle school, but now he was facing a hurdle he had never experienced: he was drowning and needed help. He found that help just in time. His counselor quickly altered his schedule, found him the school supplies he needed, and called his mom to discuss how she could help Brandon study at home.

Since that day, Brandon has maintained passing grades in all his classes. Equally important, he now swings through the counselors’ suite at least once a week. He has made connections and those connections make the difference in his success.

Transition is not an event—it is a journey. The staff at Bellaire High School in Texas consider it imperative that we do our best to make the transition a propitious one. We are the largest high school within the Houston Independent School District, and we have built a healthy academic program whereby we offer a full slate of both Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Every sport and every fine arts program is represented on campus, and we have more than 110 active clubs and organizations.

Each student has an opportunity to connect and find his or her place at Bellaire. At the same time, any student can easily choose to remain invisible, stay average, and maybe make his or her way through to graduation. And it’s that maybe that led us to more aggressively outline our transition program from eighth to ninth grade.

As we share our story, it is important to realize that our program is a work in progress. We are in our second year of deliberate action with our freshmen and while we have had some success, we continue to reflect on the pieces that may have been too ambitious.

The research is clear regarding the transition to high school and its possible impact on the dropout rate. So our purpose is to inspire you to action whether your transition focus is into or out of middle school. Working with your neighboring schools to build a plan will help your students find the most success.

Welcome to Bellaire

At Bellaire, we focused first on our hallmark transition event for the past 15 years: Cardinal Camp. In the past, it had been three half-day sessions for incoming freshmen focused on logistics and the history of the school. As we reflected on its merits as it was structured, we realized that Cardinal Camp had become a physical event—there was no emotional component. And knowing how important relationships are within a school community, we identified that aspect as the place to begin. How could we begin to attach emotion—energy— to our transition plan? Here’s what we have developed so far.

Cardinal Kickoff. Our transition season begins in February with the Cardinal Kickoff. This school event allows us to open our doors to prospective families and say, “Come see what makes us proud.”

The Houston ISD is a district of choice, which means that families zoned to us have options when choosing a school for their child. As a result, we recruit students to our school—even those students who live across the street. Because other Houston ISD schools and many private schools compete with us, we search for the best means to show off what the life of a Bellaire Cardinal can look like.

It’s important that all of our zoned students begin to see themselves on our campus. Although topics involving academics are a part of the Cardinal Kickoff evening, it is the zeal of our students that we want to display. Seeing nearly 100 clubs and organizations represented across the cafeteria generates amazing energy from the prospective families, and the feedback we most often get ranges from “Wow!” to “You really do have everything!”

Cardinal Crew Leaders prepare for a team building activity at Cardinal Camp.

Cardinal Crew Leaders. Some of the most critical work is done in April when Bellaire tenth and eleventh graders have the chance to apply to join the Cardinal Crew Leaders. This group guides new students through Cardinal Camp in August as well as through several touch points during the fall semester.

As part of our selection process, we ask applicants why being a Cardinal Crew Leader would be important to them. Their replies have ranged from, “My first year at Bellaire was amazing and I want that same feeling for new freshmen” to “For me, the first few months at Bellaire were really tough because I didn’t know what was important.” Regardless of whether they are coming from a positive or negative experience, they want to make the transition better for those who follow them.

In August the rubber meets the road, beginning with the full-day training of our 180 Cardinal Crew Leaders. Each member of this cadre of leaders has a role, and their training that day begins to build within them the mission of this work. As they experience all the activities through which they will lead freshmen, each begins to take ownership of the event. The Crew Leaders start using phrases like “my kids” and “my freshmen.”

Incoming freshmen play a game their smal group during a session at Cardinal Camp..

Cardinal Camp. The annual Cardinal Camp, held 10 days prior to the first day of school, is a single-day event that gives incoming students an opportunity to connect with our school spirit and traditions, tour the campus while participating in team-building activities, participate in a club jamboree, and enjoy a student-led pep rally.

The touch points that our Cardinal Crew Leaders have with “their kids” during the first few weeks of September include coordinated lunches together and invitations to join a variety of clubs and organizations.

Pulling in Parents. Transition activities are not just for students. We have found that adults want to do the right thing to help students make the transition, and they are not sure what that might be. So we help them through coordinated communication efforts.

Members of the Bellaire High School Ukulele Live Club share information with eighth grade students at Cardinal Kickoff.

Our Cardinal’s Nest website has a razor-sharp focus on ninth grade. In addition, we host a freshman parent meeting in late September. The timing of this meeting is such that students have had a chance to settle into their courses. The meeting includes a focus on credits, four-year plans, study skills, as well as a refresher on acceptable social behavior and how to handle the students’ thirst for more responsibility. This presentation is shared on the Cardinal’s Nest website along with the fall guidance lesson that our counselors present to all freshmen.

Getting to Know You. October is the month that brought Brandon to our attention. And it may be the month that spurs us to the most important action. We invite the lead eighth grade counselor or dean from each of the three largest feeder middle schools to meet with our team of assistant principals and counselors. Each middle school representative is asked to share any anecdotal information that may be helpful to their peers at the high school. Comments may range from “she’s great and will do well” to “his parents are going through a divorce so he needs a set of eyes on him.”

Incoming freshmen gather in groups during a common lunch period in the courtyard during Cardinal Camp.

Our goal is to see which kids have already surfaced (for behavior, academics, or simple needs) and which ones we need to seek out (currently invisible yet potentially desperate for support). Whatever the case may be, the process allows us to learn more about our students.

So no matter the size of the campus, the demographics of the students, or past achievement levels, each year a new group of students challenges us to be better. Their transition to us or from us is a physical event, an emotional endeavor, and a scary proposition. Yet its significance demands a course of action. We must be both deliberate and bold so we can find success for kids like Brandon.

Michael McDonough is completing his eleventh year as a secondary principal, including the past three years at Bellaire High School in Texas.

Debbie Campbell is in her second year as the director of communications at Bellaire High School and is the mother of a Bellaire senior.

Trish Magilke is finishing her third year as a counselor at Bellaire High School and has focused much of her work on freshman transition.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2015.