Freshman Academy Concept

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Currently, I am the assistant principal at Waynesville High School (in Missouri), specifically charged with working with freshman students (all 435 of them) and the interdisciplinary teams of teachers in the new Freshman Academy. This is our first year of doing the Freshman Academy, and we actually call ourselves a Ninth Grade Center. There are differences between an Academy and a “Center”, let’s start with those first.
Freshman Academy Concept:
A Freshman Academy is integrated with the high school, specifically working with freshman and freshman teams of teachers but definitely belonging to and being part of the overall high school. Specific programs are implemented for freshman and our kids are offered all the opportunities that go along with being in high school. This includes ninth-grade specific teachers, administrator, counselor, and even a separate entrance/office area for freshman and their parents. The students share the hallways, the library, the cafeteria, and extracurriculars with their upper-level peers. Frequently, Freshman Academy’s emphasize interdisciplinary units, the team concept, and PBL type of instructional methods. From my research, Ninth Grade Centers are often separate facilities – separate entities from the high school at large. They may offer the same programs, but they are a separate transitional placement instead of an embedded placement.
By this definition, our WHS Ninth Grade Center is actually a Freshman Academy. In our first year, we have made great strides in teaming, beginning to implement interdisciplinary units, and experimenting and identifying worthwhile programs to support our students with transition to high school. Although we are just beginning the journey, we are seeing the benefits of the Freshman Academy model and would encourage other schools to follow a similar concept to help students be successful in high school. We have seen reductions in referrals, improvements in grades, and an overall morale boost for teachers and students.
Facilities/organization into teams:
Our current facilities are part of an addition to the existing high school. We use the same elective courses and large group areas that belong to the rest of the high school, and our students are housed within the actual high school – they are not physically separate. We have reorganized our wings from the content specific areas to freshmen “zones” where different content areas are offered side-by-side. This helps teachers to monitor their kids and touch base with colleagues on their teams. It also provides a homebase for freshman even though they are still in contact with the overall high school population.
Small learning communities (SLC):
A major part of the teaming concept is the development of small learning communities. Our SLCs (or teams) consist of ELA, Science, Geography and SpEd support. For our situation, we have resisted integrating math into the team-because students are pre-scheduled for different levels of math (which would cause different ability levels of each team -similar to tracking, or cause math teachers to belong to multiple teams). This not only helps with organizing teams but it makes the freshman model more transitional because only 3 out of 7 courses are teamed. We have made special efforts to not over-team or over-insulate kids to become a middle school within the high school.
These small learning communities devote one plan period Per week to co-plan and collaborate with team members. This is when they develop interdisciplinary units and talk about individual student needs. They also coordinate grading and homework policies and discuss ways to make classroom procedures and management more consistent from the student perspective. We have also found that parent contact and communication between parents and the team has increased because of this organization and shared plan time.
Special Programs:
The first special program we initiated was a transition day and mentoring program for freshmen (this had actually been in place prior to this year). This freshman transition day begins before the regular school year and students go to their schedule, meet mentors, do teambuilding activities, get a T-shirt, meet teachers and administrators, and have a basic orientation to the high school. The day is meant to build a sense of belonging, comfort, and fun for students that may be entering the high school with some apprehension or preconceived notions. We follow this initial day with a freshman mentor program implemented throughout the school year, where upperclassman work with small groups of freshman almost like a homeroom or advisory for 20 minutes each day. We have implemented a grading period based reward program, similar to programs known as Renaissance. Students that meet articulated standards for attendance academics and behavior are rewarded with a wide variety of fun activities meant to build a sense of belonging and pride within our students. This year we have had a dance, glow-in-the-dark dodgeball, open gym, karaoke, and even a field day. We provide food and snacks and student friendly music throughout this fun event. We also have implemented an after-school mentor program that is targeted for students who have demonstrated struggles with being successful high school students. This involves hiring additional staff to serve as tutors and even in class monitors for students who need extra help and extra accountability during the school day and after-school. For those individual students we have seen huge gains in work completion organization and taking responsibility for their grades-this is all from the extra work done after school and the relationship with the tutor. Finally, our interdisciplinary teams have taken ownership for their “flock” of freshman students. These teams of teachers consider their rosters not just a class but part of a greater group for which they are responsible and with whom they develop deeper relationships.

Although this is only the first year, there is promise in the way our students are scheduled, the programs we offer, and the way we have changed our instruction based off interdisciplinary units. Over the next years we plan on strengthening our PBL lessons and units, continuing to evolve to standards-based grading, and integrate co-teaching throughout all of the interdisciplinary teams.

I hope this information has been helpful I welcome any contact or questions regarding our Freshman Academy and how you could implement that and other high schools. Furthermore, I would like to begin a Twitter chat or professional learning network with others who find themselves in a freshman Academy or ninth grade Center model.

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