“Something about this transition is incredibly complicated,” said Avashia. “And it’s not just the kids who should be at risk. It’s a much bigger group of kids who are falling down. Why?”
Some of the reasons she already knew: Boston’s rising high school freshmen had complete choice of any school in the city -- a student could choose or get assigned through the lottery a school that is a two-hour public transportation commute from her home. Avashia knew of many students to whom this happened; it’s not uncommon for a student to take three different trains and a bus to get to high school. Add that enormous responsibility to the other, more normal high school pressures, and it quickly became clear why even the most stable students were “falling down”: Too many students were taking an enormous leap with no information or help to break the fall.
“There’s an incredible disconnect between middle schools and high schools,” Avashia said, and because of the dispersion of high schools -- there are no feeder schools -- the middle schools and high schools don’t communicate with each other at all. When ninth-graders show up on the first day of school, their new school knows literally nothing about them.
So together with fellow teacher Laura Cennamo and Jessica Madden-Fuoco, their former instructor at the Boston Teacher Residency, Avashia created Countdown to High School, an organization that provides a curriculum to eighth- and ninth-graders to prepare them for what’s ahead, and help guide them through rough patches when they get to high school by giving them something they really need: information. They offered a free grad-level course to Boston middle school teachers to train them on the curriculum, and even created a video for eighth-graders that explains what will be expected of them when they are freshmen.
“We created a curriculum you could use with kids to support them through the transition,” Avashia said. “For eighth-graders, it’s about fit, what’s the best school for you. If you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning, then don’t choose a school so far away from home, that kind of thing.”
In the ninth grade, an advisory curriculum helps teachers talk to students about common freshman issues, like time management, how to build relationships with other students and social aspects, like finding the right extracurricular activity. Ideally, teachers take time out of classroom instruction to talk to students about the transition to high school.
But, as is the case in many large urban districts, the grant Countdown to High School received to get off the ground has run out; some teachers were more on board than others. Since the grant has run out, Avashia and her team have been in a holding pattern with their program, realizing that in order to be truly effective, they needed more than just a grad course and a video. They needed to turn the organization into a nonprofit and start asking for money.
“People’s expectation when you start work like this is that you start your own nonprofit,” Avashia said. “But we want to be teachers. We’re not in it to ask for money from people. We want to help young people.”
She said they’ve had trouble attracting donors because, as she put it, “helping kids map their route to school isn’t exactly sexy,” but it's still an entirely necessary piece to help set new freshmen up for success.
Giving Freshmen Their Own Space in Alpha House
What began nearly 20 years ago as a music program for urban youth in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, the High School for Recording Arts is now a full-scale charter high school and dropout recovery program that serves 300 students from ages 14 to 21. Focused on teaching all aspects of the hip-hop industry, from recording and engineering to business and management, for years the majority of the student population had dropped out of school for at least six months, and 50 percent were currently or formerly homeless. According to its website, “Of the students who have enrolled at HSRA, about 400 or 72.5 percent have graduated. Over the last four years, 100 percent of our graduates have been accepted into college.”
But as the school’s reputation for producing stellar hip-hop music has spread, graduating middle school students want to have a shot at “Hip Hop High.” Because of the age of many of the students, and the critical nature of many of their circumstances, Assistant Education Director Joey Cienian said giving freshmen a place to land within the school community became even more important -- especially because HSRA is an open school structure that is project-based, and doesn’t look one bit like traditional high school.
“It’s different with the ninth-graders coming in from middle school,” compared with some of the older dropout-recovery students, Cienian said. “If they see that lack of structure, and they don’t have the educational maturity, experience or skill set to know to how to make time for their studies, they’re going to run into problems.”
Over the last 2½ years, HSRA has made vast improvements to serve this particular population of incoming 14- and 15-year-olds to create a smoother transition. They created “Alpha House,” a special advisory just for incoming freshmen. (The whole school follows the advisory system, in which skilled advisers build connections with each student, help choose and oversee student projects, and are responsible for connecting with home, making sure kids get to class, and helping to foster some “soft skills,” like perseverance and resiliency, too.)
While Alpha House is a literal room -- a “security blanket,” Cienian called it, with computers, an adviser on staff, a couch to sit on and a place for them to keep their stuff -- it’s also a figurative term for the community-building that freshmen do as part of their inaugural year.
One of the first tasks for Alpha students is called the My Future Life Project. Cienian said that students are given the opportunity to do some research and think about who they want to be and where they want to be.
“What type of stuff do they want to have as life achievements? What are their goals, their hobbies? Do they want to have a family/car/house?” Cienian said. “They flesh out their ideas, create a presentation, and present it to their peers.”
The project can take the shape of a Prezi, a verbal presentation, or they can even write a poem or a song about their goals. Not only does this help the new freshmen clearly define what they’d like to achieve during their time at this unusual high school, Cienian said, but it also holds their feet to the fire, so to speak.
“Peer presentation is super-important for any project-based work,” he said. “They [students] must take something more seriously when they show it to others.” He added that getting up in front of a large group also begins to build their confidence.
Alpha students work on a studio project together (this year’s group is making an album), and do volunteer service projects around town together, too, helping them build strong connections with each other that will come in handy when school and responsibilities get tougher.
A critical piece to keeping at-risk students engaged in school, Cienian said, is for advisers to hyper-plan ahead of the project to be sure to scaffold the processes so students don’t get discouraged. And grading is different at HSRA, too; if kids don’t finish a project, they don’t necessarily get an "F." Instead, they get graded on the pieces -- from professionalism to research to presentation.
“They may not get the credit,” Cienian said. “But we guide them through what went wrong and how to do it better next time. It’s important for us not to be punitive if the process failed. Instead, they can earn credit for reflecting on their failure, what to do better next time. Something happened in their life, they fell off, they will reflect on what’s going on and what held them back.”