A smooth passage to high school
Erica Schreiber can laugh now, but her first day as a wide-eyed freshman entering Port Angeles High School in Washington State was nearly wall-to-wall intimidation.Skip to next paragraph
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"My second-period class was jazz band," she says, "and I was the only freshman girl - surrounded by all these big people who were five years older than I was. I was very intimidated."
Her friend, Derek Nixon, now a junior, was equally anxious that day, having believed the rumors that seniors at Port Angeles always haze freshmen. "I kept waiting for someone to grab me and stuff me in a locker or something," he says, laughing. "Of course, it never happened; nothing ever happened."
You get over it, they say. That first daunting day, that first week when you are on a huge high-school campus. Some of the girls look like movie stars with cellphones, the guys have deep voices, and your locker is so far away it might as well be in the next town.
"You want to make sure you do everything right the first day," says top student Tyler Maltbie, a freshman soon to enter Hamilton Wenham Regional High School near Ipswich, Mass. "I'm already picking out what I'm going to wear. I don't want to come in seeming like a geek. I'll wear a short-sleeve shirt, probably an Abercrombie and Fitch."
Millions of teens and their families in the US are now counting down summer's last few days until the first day of high school. Freshmen view it as one of life's more harrowing transitions - going from squeaky-voiced junior-high graduates to homework-responsible, semi-adult status, topped off four years later by that cultural icon, the senior prom.
But schools, students, families, and teachers have learned over the past 20 years that the first-week issues of "Where am I?" fade quickly.
"What is far more important now is being successful for the entire first year," says Monica Rowland, a teacher at Newport High School in Belview, Wash.
Instead of modest, one-stop orientation meetings for freshmen and their parents, many campuses now stretch the help out over a longer period of time - often with senior students involved, too, and innovative support programs on and off campus.
By encouraging a promising social and academic start, a successful four years is more likely to follow. "In the long run I think all such efforts will show up in cutting the dropout rate," says high school science teacher Ginny Markell, now national president of the Parent Teachers Association (PTA). The dropout rate in the US is around 500,000 students a year.
Some of the impetus comes from parents and communities concerned over school-safety issues as well as the social and emotional atmosphere of the school. "There is a huge trend," says Mrs. Markell, "to see a kind of seamless education with smooth transitions."
Schools and families want to smooth out the bumps. "For the most part, these kids aren't really aware that the ante is now going up," says Greg Clausen, principal of Rosemont High in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul. "Their grades and their future plans become much more important. They need help."
Erica's mother, Jessica Schreiber, wanted her daughter to gain some help and insights into being at high school before the dreaded first day arrived. "Particularly for girls," she says, "there are a lot of things that happen in high school that are undermining. Erica is a good student and pretty confident, but a lot of girls are shaken when they get in high school."
Ms. Schreiber had heard of the nonprofit Gifts Unlimited Teen Seminars (GUTS) offered in Port Angeles by Glenn Goldberg. The seminars are intense, four-day sessions with about 20 teens focusing on identity, values, and team-building. The goal is to help teens make the best choices in high school.
"No matter how good parents are, no matter how much they share their values and inculcate them in kids," says Mr. Goldberg, teens will be facing decisions about drugs, alcohol, and perceived put-downs. "Adults aren't going to be around, and even if they are, most kids are looking to their peers for guidance and support."