Focus on freshmen

Heritage academy stresses success with beefed-up team concept

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The jokes are legendary, sometimes scarring. Freshmen stuffed in lockers, convinced to buy an elevator pass in a one-level building or sold tickets to a free pep rally.

The deer-in-the-headlights look identifies them even more quickly than their inability to find the gym.

What isn’t funny is when their freshman year becomes their last year of high school.

Blount County schools have studied the positives and negatives of the freshman experience and have taken steps to make the ninth-grade year a springboard to success.

Oct. 5 was the end of the first nine-week grading period for county schools. It was also the end of the first nine weeks of the newly-instituted freshman academy at Heritage High School.

The freshmen academy program at Heritage High School places freshmen in a team environment in a separate wing of the school, away from students in other grades. The students are assigned to a team of teachers. With the exception of when they attend elective classes, the freshmen are together the entire day, even during lunch.

Replacing the fear and trepidation freshmen students and their parents feel was a big reason behind starting the academy, says principal Patricia Mandigo.

“There’s not the fear, now. There is a sense of oneness,” Mandigo said. “That has been a wonderful thing for the kids.”

Blount County Schools director Alvin Hord said helping students get a good start was another reason behind developing a freshman academy at Heritage High School. Assistant principal Mimi Williams led a pilot program with 75 students last year. This year 428 students, the entire freshman class, are involved.

“Our overall goal has been to make those kids come out of the academy on target in terms of how many credits they have,” Hord said. “That’s our goal for them, not to come out of ninth grade behind, but to be up to par with the number of credits they need.”

Hord said improving the graduation rate was the ultimate goal of the academies at both high schools. “Our graduation rate is what we’re working on with that, and that’s what we’re hoping to make better with the academy. We’re trying to make things better and keep kids in school.”

Jane Morton with Blount County Schools has overseen the work in creating the academy concepts at both Heritage and at the one planned for next year at William Blount.

Morton said that is very important students understand what is required of them to graduate. They also need to understand the impact of attending class, participating in extra curricular activities, showing good behavior and developing strong work and study habits.

“When you’re in ninth grade, you don’t often have a clear understanding of how important that transcript is when you leave high school,” Morton said. “We want students to have the best possible experience while here, and the best opportunity to do well.”

Parents approve

When Shannon Whitehead was a freshman in high school, he had the experience many ninth graders endured.

“We were just thrown in with everybody, and you tried to get along,” he said.

Whitehead said he has been impressed with the freshmen academy at Heritage High School and how it has helped his daughter, Skylee.

“I know she’s really enjoyed school a lot more this year than she has in the past. She’s excelling in her class with grades. She’s never been really motivated before, but, this year, she just seems like she’s so much more into it,” he said.

Whitehead said there doesn’t seem to be as many distractions for students. “I don’t know if that’s being from the freshmen academy or what that would be, but it’s not a bad thing,” he said.

Clint Boling said his son Mason has enjoyed the academy, especially the JROTC classes. The academy setting also has helped Mason take his class more work seriously. “From what his teacher tells me, he takes everything seriously in class and doesn’t get out of line,” Boling said.

Steven Gann’s daughter Stephanie also is excelling in the academy, and he’s impressed. “I’d say whatever they’re doing right now, they’re going in the right direction,” he said.

A work in progress

Morton said the freshmen academy at Heritage High School and the one that will put William Blount ninth graders in an academy at the former William Blount Middle School next year have been well studied.

“It’s not something that was put together quickly. It was done with a lot of thought and planning at Heritage, and we’ve have put nearly two years into planning at William Blount,” she said. “Even though they will be different in appearance and the way they’re organized, it will accomplish the same thing - get students off to a good start in high school and provide opportunities for them to become a group and also having an opportunity to get to know teachers.”

Morton said 75 students were in the pilot program for the academy last year. Data collected from Heritage High School’s pilot program last year, the effort had a positive impact on the attendance for the students then. “Class failures for that group of students were dramatically lower than for students not in the academy,” she said. “There was a difference in disciplinary referrals. I think the big impact was on attendance, grades and disciplinary referrals.”

The students did as well as the rest of the students or in some cases a little bit better in state-mandated tests, Morton said. The biggest benefit last year was to students who had struggled academically in eighth grade. “We knew who they were and planned their schedules and programming very carefully, and the end result was the greatest success for them as it was for all the other students,” she said.

“I think the other positive aspect of the academy is the involvement with parents. Part of what Heritage planned was for parents to have more involvement in their child’s education,” she said. “Also, by assigning teachers to a common planning time, it gave those teachers an opportunity to really know the students and to maintain contact with the parents about the student’s entire day and not just about one class.”

Morton said she has been pleased with what she has seen at Heritage. “I believe the team approach Heritage used really met the needs of students at all levels last year and is doing the same this year,” she said.

Preparing for progress

Williams said often students’ success isn’t a matter of a lack of ability. “It’s not that they can’t do the work, they’re just not doing it,” she said. “If you have them in the appropriate class, they should be able to handle it.”

Williams said the academy helps get students in the appropriate classes. Williams and the teachers at the academy worked throughout the summer preparing to try new and innovative ways of teaching and managing the classrooms.

In the freshmen academy, students are assigned to teachers. The teachers and students are then assigned to teams.

“They can plan interdisciplinary activities, have parent conferences. They can talk about problems. ‘What are you doing that I’m not doing?’”

“They coordinate so they’re teaching the same curriculum at the same pace,” she said. “We want them to be pretty close so it’s not a big shock if students have to go from one team to another.”

There are 15 teachers, 12 of whom teach only academy classes and three teach part-time in the academy classes and the rest of the day with students from other grades.

Williams said in the freshmen wing there are eight classrooms downstairs, three classrooms upstairs and three science classes are taught elsewhere. Computer classes are taught in the vocational school. The core classes are taught in the freshmen wing, she said.

Time to teach

The academy also uses a classroom management model called Time to Teach to deal with behavior issues. “It deals with minor behavior that negatively affects learning.”

Those behaviors include talking too much or acting inappropriately. “What happens is if they’ve displayed one of those behaviors, the teacher gives them a prompt. They’ve got five to seven seconds to comply,” she said. “If they don’t, they’re sent to refocus. It’s like a time out. They have to fill out a questionnaire about their behavior and how they can fix it in the future. It takes less than 5 minutes and then they go back in with the class. It’s non-punitive and non-emotional.”

The students are taught the whole process, and they’re taught the behaviors expected of them. “You teach behavior at the beginning of the school year and show them what it looks like,” Williams said.

If inappropriate behavior becomes excessive, then that is when parents are brought in to discuss the situation.

Williams said the class room management model works because there isn’t the sense that the teacher’s actions are punitive, just corrective. “The teachers tell me it has worked. I think kids would tell you they like it. There’s not a discussion which can turn into an argument. The teachers have more time to teach,” she said.

The teachers also teach proper behavior in the hallways, the cafeteria and in assembly.

Williams said a problem they’ve seen in the past is student promotion from class to class and grade level to grade level. “Most people call it social promotion,” she said. “Students get used to that.”

Williams said the freshmen academy creates a whole new world for students in that situation. Not only do the students get more individual attention, the staff has also instituted tutorial sessions before school two days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m, she said.

“The parent or the teacher can request this,” Williams said. “We’ve had several parents who say they want the tutorials (for their children).”

Academically at-risk students get extra attention with math, science and English classes throughout the year. “We have 100 to 110 students who have all-year math, science and English,” she said.

Teens talk academy

Manuel Toledo, 14, likes the ease of the academy as far as organization.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids to get academically better in school,” he said. “It makes you focus more because you’re in all-year classes, and you have the same teacher. It’s not confusing. I think it gets kids more focused,” he said.

Skylee Whitehead, 14, said it’s easier than being with older students. “You know more people because we’re all freshmen,” she said.

The new regiment has also helped Skylee be more productive. “I’m more organized this year and getting school work done quicker,” she said.

As part of the homecoming week festivities recently, several of the freshmen academy’s girls beat girls from the upper classes during a powder puff football game.

With their freshmen pride running high, a few of the Powder Puff team members shared their thoughts about the academy.

“It makes freshmen year easier to get around,” Jessika Simerly said. “You get to stay with the same group of people.”

“You don’t get lost,” Kelsey Russell said. “Most of our classes are in the same wing.”

“It helps you stay focused,” Kristina Matas said.

Next: Academy for Govs

Hord said the academy concept personalizes the learning process more by keeping up with the kids and meeting their needs more on an individual basis in order to solve problems that lead them to not getting credits they need to graduate. “That’s going to be our goal when we get into the one at William Blount as well,” he said. “That’s been my goal.”

Morton said she’s looking forward to the opening of the ninth grade academy at William Blount for the 2008-2009 year. The current middle school will be moved to the new Union Middle School currently under construction. The freshmen academy would then occupy the former William Blount Middle School building.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the faculty and administration in the planning of that, and I’m very happy to see the two high schools working together and learning for each other in the planning and operation of both academies,” she said. “I’m proud of both them.”

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