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More Homework And Grades and Electives, Oh My

New high schoolers can use lots of guidance

Last summer, Daniel Kruger had a lot on his mind.

And why not? The oldest of Virginia and Gerard Kruger's four children was about to enter high school. In the small rural town of Salisbury, Conn., Daniel had attended elementary and middle school with the same classmates at the same red-brick Main Street school that is described by its principal as "a nest."

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But at the public Housatonic Valley Regional High School, the honors student would face new surroundings, new peers, new teachers, and the pressure to get the grades demanded by top colleges.

He heard about hazing, impersonal teachers, and a boot-camp atmosphere. But he found that was all "complete bunk," he says. Now, a year later, he beams, "I love high school."

Making the transition from middle school to high school can be an unsettling experience for young teens who are maturing at different rates, seeking independence, and beginning to mull over their futures. Increasingly, educators and parents are recognizing the importance of shepherding children, says Robert Spear, executive director of the New England League of Middle Schools.

"That transition is getting a lot of attention," Mr. Spear says. "Quite candidly, people need to work together and think about it from the personal side. It's not rocket science. It's just that we need to listen to the kids. There's a reform movement going on. High schools are becoming more caring and more nurturing."

Educators tackle the transition by taking students on tours of high schools, holding orientations, and assigning freshmen to advisers for regular meetings.

All this helps children at a delicate time. They've gone from being "top cats" in middle school to being at the bottom - "from one subculture to another. It's important at age 14 to fit into that subculture," says Michael McCaffrey, superintendent of the Dennis-Yarmouth school system in Yarmouth, Mass.

Academically, they also face culture shock, he says, noting they have more homework and face higher stakes. "It's easier to fail," he says. "[Freshmen] are at the beginning of the most important four years of their education because it can make or break where they go in the future."

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Daniel is keenly aware of that. "There's less pressure to fit in socially in high school than middle school, but more pressure to do well academically," he says, citing a lack of academic preparedness as the reason why many of his freshmen classmates "slid down the academic scale at an alarming rate."

Parents play a role

Eddie Davis is a ninth-grade English teacher at the inner-city Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., and is on the National Education Association's executive board. Like others, he has seen incoming freshmen get lost in a large high school as they try to find not only their classrooms and the cafeteria, but also their niche.

As they start high school, Mr. Davis notes, many teens are shunning parental involvement. But he finds that guidance from parents is "what kids need more than anything else." Indeed, Daniel says that many of his anxieties were dispelled by "lots of emotional support" from his parents.

Paul George, an education professor at the University of Florida, and author of the soon to be released "The New American High School," goes so far as to call high schools "dangerous places academically" and says a large part of the answer is parents. "Kids want to distance themselves from their parents, but it's very important that parents don't accept that and stick with it," Mr. George says.

At the same time, students in ninth grade have more freedom than they had a year earlier and, in exchange, more maturity is expected of them, says superintendent McCaffrey. While freedom may be great, merging increased autonomy with more rigorous academics forces students to acquire self-discipline and time management skills they never had to know before, Davis warns.

That's what Virginia Davisdon, another Salisbury, Conn., teen, found last year as a high school freshman. "It was harder to be left on our own. You have to be a lot more self-motivated and have more self-discipline," she says.

Time management

In North Carolina, Davis gives his students planning tools, such as schedules, and suggests they write daily "to do" lists, which improve organization and offer a feeling of accomplishment when students cross items off the list. He also advises youngsters to do the hardest tasks first, leaving the easier ones "for dessert."

"They have to focus their time a lot more and use their time wisely," he says. "It's a hard lesson for ninth-graders to learn, especially if there is no structure or supervision at home."

Better communication between his eighth-grade and ninth-grade teachers, Daniel says, would have eased the academic transition he plodded through, where he excelled in English and struggled with math. The difference, he says, was not that he did better in one subject than the other, but that his middle school English teacher better prepared him for what he would find.

"The eighth-grade teachers didn't do as much as I thought they could have," he recalls. "They did little to teach as if they were connecting with the high school curriculum."

* Parts 1 and 2 appeared on July 21 and Aug. 18.


To help tackle the transition to high school, experts say schools and parents should consider the following:

* Give incoming freshmen a tour of their high school, ideally the previous spring when they can shadow an older student for a day.

* Assign all freshmen an adviser, from the school's faculty or staff, to catch social or academic problems early on.

* Parental involvement in a child's high school experience is essential, educators say, despite teenagers' resistance.

* Suggest students find a mentor, someone in or out of school to look up to, emulate, and talk to.

* Encourage students to get involved early in an activity that interests them, such as sports, student government, drama, or music.

* Give students tangible tools, such as schedules, to help them learn organizational skills.

* Keep the television off on school nights.

* Wait until after school starts to buy new clothes and supplies so students who want to conform will know what the popular styles are.

* Make sure students realize how important it is that they do well academically in high school.

* Send high school teachers and guidance counselors into middle schools in the spring to discuss high schools and their curricula in depth.

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