How Freshman Seminars Can Help Students Starting the Ninth Grade

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Colleges are experienced in having programs that help incoming freshman transition to the rigors of undergraduate life. But schools are seeing the need to help with an earlier transition -- the one into the freshman year of high school. Going from middle to high school can be a major adjustment for students. To help students navigate their new experiences, schools are beginning to offer courses, and in some cases, mentoring, to help them make the transition from middle school to the ninth grade.

At Maplewood High School in Nashville, every freshman is required to take a semester-long freshman seminar course that helps them think about what they want to do with their lives, and prepares them for what high school will be like.

Maplewood’s Freshman Seminar teacher Shereen Cook said that in previous years, freshmen used the seminar class to learn about Metro Nashville’s "academy" system and receive guidance on choosing a track, like college prep, health care or vocational programs. But a new policy of citywide high school choice has meant moving that piece to eighth grade, so students can decide earlier. The new Freshman Seminar will concentrate on preparing kids for the high school transition, learning about college and choosing a career.

“We research the [traditional] 16 career clusters that exist out there, because we want them to know what their options are,” Cook said. “Some come in with an idea of what they want to do already, but many are still very young: All the boys want to go into sports. OK, so if you don’t go pro, let’s have a backup plan. What are your talents and skills and interests? How could those connect to a career?”

For many of Cook’s students at Maplewood, they will be the first in their families to attend college, so learning how college works is paramount. All freshmen tour a Nashville college campus, and research colleges. “We learn: What does it take to get into college, what does tuition mean?" Cook said. "Some of these basic things, especially at our school, are meant to bridge that gap, so students can envision themselves there and know the vocabulary related to college.”

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Maplewood has also partnered with Belmont University to create a program for those on the advanced academic track, holding them to high academic standards and providing them with an intense, three-day experience on campus taking writing workshops and ACT prep.

“But not everyone’s going to college, so we want them to be prepared for that also,” Cook said.

Maplewood has a full vocational program, including an automotive shop that has partnered with Firestone, and a salon that has partnered with Paul Mitchell. Both programs offer a certificate program, which means students can begin working as soon as they graduate or go on to technical programs.

One project that Maplewood’s students have enjoyed, Cook said, is making a 10-year career plan. Beginning with their goals and the subjects they’re interested in, Cook then pushes students to ask themselves what they need to achieve their goals. Often this goes beyond what degrees and certifications students need, but focuses just as much on the "soft skills," like perseverance and mapping out the steps it takes to achieve a goal.

“Many students need help with interview and speaking skills, and how to introduce themselves,” Cook said, and a large part of the seminar curriculum addresses aspects of professionalism like punctuality, personal presentation and how to work effectively with others.

In the seminar, Cook emphasizes how important it is for freshmen to keep up with their work, and explains how the credit system works.

“That’s what makes the high school transition so hard,” Cook said. “They come from middle school, where many have been socially promoted. I tell them you have to pass seven out of eight classes each year, so if you have to fail, save it for something hard. If you don’t pass math and English, you’ll have to retake them.”

Some Maplewood students graduated and received full scholarships from Belmont through the Bridges to Belmont program, but the first group to attend found they were unprepared for college work and had to take remedial classes. Cook said she is working hard to give the freshmen what they need to be successful, beginning in the Freshman Seminar.

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“How can we prepare these kids to do college work?” she said. “It’s about preparing them to be those students that Belmont wants.”

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