Get Your Act Together

By Robert McClory,
Ketchikan High School Counselor
2010 Finalist for School Counselor of the Year
(American School Counselor Association)

The start of the school year brings more than autumn leaves, new friendships and fresh challenges for students and staff alike. Students may feign disappointment that summer sleep-ins will end and end the tranquility of summer schedules — that is, until first-day reconnections highlight their excitement to return. In August, enrollments are often higher. Attendance is up in school, and successes outnumber disappointments by wide margins.

So when do drop-out notices appear on the desk of the registrar hinting the early enthusiasm and optimism is fading? In many schools the end of the first quarter when the demands of the newest grade transition hit hard and hit home.  Where do they proliferate? Much research suggests that transitions that are the most unexpected can be where the challenges can be the most debilitating.

Freshmen face the biggest sets of challenges in many ways in a high school. Not only can the academic challenges mean a big adjustment, but also a new building with new systems, requirements, rules and expectations can be overwhelming. These challenges can be framed and conveyed in the faces of new administrators, new teachers and new classmates in all too often unfamiliar settings.

So what is the problem with this? The adage that first impressions are lasting is borne out in research. Freshmen are often entering high school literally and figuratively with questions about their prospects for success: success in new relationships, success in challenging classes, success at finding their niche in sports, clubs, or extracurricular activities.

Those who feel most familiar with the new grounds and respective ground rules have the greatest chance to reach that proverbial finish line we call “graduation” in a timely four year span that proved they were not only ready for high school, but confident their four years would bring all personal, academic and social growth for which they had hoped.

Our school has its own version of a program to help freshmen walk through the door on their first day feeling ready, excited and prepared to face what may be the biggest transition they have faced in their young lives. Class Act was born when we lost funding to bring in professionals with prepared activities to systematically engage and excite new freshmen so the transitions were exposed for all they were: minor speed bumps that could be easily navigated with the support of a welcoming staff and older students sworn to involve — not initiate those moving into their old lockers.

The funds to pay “consultants” who obviously know more than the locals were lost, but the will to welcome new students was found in the residue of the funds we could assemble to get T-shirts, snacks and supplies for incoming freshmen. Donations, tiny grants and district monies seem to appear as needed to continue this programmatic approach to welcoming what is likely to be a fourth or more of the entire next year school population.

Class Act starts in the spring when former mentors present in classes to encourage new blood to apply and enjoy the leadership opportunities. Prestige seems to accompany the desire to make a difference for prospective mentors who apply. For every one spot, four to five very qualified applicants ask to be selected. They interview. They get staff recommendations. They check regularly to see if they will have the privilege of having younger students hang on their every word and direction on the first day freshmen come to our school to get, see and consider changing schedules.

Fun and food follow small groups that are organized and led by students a year or two older than the new students. A mentor teacher is there to help along the way, but students have been interviewed, selected and trained to conduct small group activities designed to build small connected groups who compete on scavenger hunts, tug-of-wars, races and other competitions. New freshmen each get a school shirt, notebook and pencil neatly wrapped and organized according to their shirt sizes and dispersed by their mentors in a welcoming gesture. Activities include ice-breakers as well as serious efforts to share the “secrets of success” so freshmen know what to expect and how to succeed.

Freshmen evaluations indicate a number of gains from the big first day welcome that happens a few days before classes actually begin. Getting staff to give up half day of the remnants of summer vacation takes staff buy-in. Getting grocery stores to provide spaghetti and other treats to feed the new freshmen counts on generous grocers. Getting custodians to look the other way while freshly waxed hallways become a torrent of freshmen eager to win races and scavenger hunts takes tact and empathy.

The winners abound. Class Act is the alarm clock that awakens us all to the new year each summer. We throw out the welcome mat that tells freshmen they already have what it takes to walk over that same carpet as they exit with a diploma in four years without fear that they will face initiation from seniors eager to imprison them in lockers or stuff them in waiting garbage carts. Mentors may benefit the most in many ways.

Mentors feel ownership for their school. They care for the new freshmen while setting a positive school climate from which we all benefit. They learn leadership, team-building and planning as they design occasional follow-up meetings with their own squad of freshmen. With groups under 20 freshmen, our duos and trios of mentor partners feel confident they can impact and touch the lives of the many freshmen who regard them with respect.

All the while Class Act builds community within our school so freshmen are more likely to face the transition to high school with confidence, insight and ideas on how to make the next four years some of the best of their lives — ones which prepare them not to end their high school career, but clear a path on which high school students can face their next and even greater transition with hope that their belief that they face transition as a challenge to be embraced and faced with the same kind of success Class Act helped secure.

Many schools have their own version of welcoming activities. Some are more monumental. Others are led by professionals who do little else but organize and conduct these types of activities. For our school, it has helped some freshmen avoid the temptation of dropping out as they take comfort in knowing they have a network offering security and support.

Success is about confidence: confidence you can succeed, a belief that you know what to expect and are prepared and able to complete the jobs faced along the way. Class Act doesn’t guarantee that. Class Act doesn’t reduce our drop-out rate to zero, but it gives the bulk of our freshmen the boost many need to face the transition of high school with optimism — a spirit that can and normally does linger for the four years we ask them to stay and enjoy the welcome the previous classes have provided as a homecoming that no single football game or basketball tournament can equal in connecting the freshmen and older students to make a cohesive and positive school community.

Counselors are trained and skilled at meeting, helping and assisting new students. But developing and managing systems that bring together eager and well trained mentors casts a wider safety net than one that can be woven by a single counselor trying to reach each student one at a time without realizing the merits of involving students eager to take on the responsibilities they face as role models for those students coming in to take their place. Get your Class Act together if you don’t already have a program to help freshmen attack the transition to high school with all they need to succeed.

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