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.
"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."
Derek, who went through the GUTS program, didn't want to do it at first. "I knew some of the other kids, and I thought they would never open up," he says.
Like so many teens today, Derek believed in teen stereotypes. "The jock, the preppie, all those labels teens give to each other," he says. "But GUTS blew them all out of the water. I realized how similar people are, and how like me they were even though we had seemed so different."
A feature of the program is to write a letter to yourself with plenty of encouragement based on insights gained from the GUTS program. "You remind yourself what you want to do in high school," says Derek. "And Mr. Goldberg mails it to you just before the first day of school. It was a big help because some of the ideas from the seminar had become a little blurry."
"What the seminar did for me," says Erica, who will be an exchange student in Argentina when school starts, "is prepare me for high school, because I hadn't thought about it much. And it started me thinking about what I was really doing and why. The letter was great, but I was still terrified the first day."
At Newport High School in Belview, the Link Crew program - now in 221 other high schools in the US - will connect 300 freshmen with successful and specially trained seniors. "They are like peer mentors," says Ms. Rowland, who directs the program at the school.
Competitively selected, the seniors are trained in leadership before the program starts and also during the year. They each stay in touch with 10 to 12 freshmen. "We want the freshman to feel connected and integrated," says Rowland. "We'll do things like a pizza party right before the first football game with the Link leaders, and later a movie night."
Equally important is the academic follow-up. "We'll have a grade-check assembly," she says, "so they can ask questions about different teachers, or talk about problems in studying, or how to improve study habits. After the first few weeks, some freshmen realize it's not such a scary place after all, and start letting up. But the Link leaders stress how much grades matter if they are going to college, and if you screw up your freshman year, the rest gets harder."
Freshmen entering Hebron High School in Carrollton, Texas, are welcomed with "Hawk Camp," a social day of fun, scavenger hunts, and mixing in small groups led by sophomores and juniors. Activities include writing a goal-setting letter to be opened in 2004.
"We tell them it's OK to feel small in this big, new school with 1,000 students," says Lori Bradley, a biology teacher at Hebron, "and it will take awhile for them to fit in."
In addition to hearing sophomores tell about their first-year experiences, the freshmen see photos taken of the sophomores at the beginning and end of their freshman year. "Everybody is almost always taller," says Ms. Bradley, "especially the boys, and they fill out, from baby face to a more adult face."
For sophomore Jacob Bass, his first day at Hebron was typical. "I wondered if I was going to have enough time between classes to get to the next one, and it turned out to be no problem. I also wondered how I was going to fit in. And the way you fit in, I think, is to get involved - take on as much as you can, do as much as possible."
For Erica, the biggest challenge in high school is the one every adult knows well. "It's being yourself," she says, "not being what people want you to be, not saying what people want you to say, being able to state an opinion that may be different from other people. Just being able to do that when you are worried people won't like you anymore, that's very hard, especially when you want everybody to like you."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society