Many of you who are members of The Freshman Transition Network have read The Ninth Grade Opportunity: Transforming Schools from the Bottom Up. Ray Moore, Alan Seibert, and I wrote this book back in 2008 and are proud of the fact that many schools across the country are using it as a blueprint of sorts for their own Freshman Transition Programs.
I am in the process of revising and updating the book to be published by a new publisher. One of the things I have done is added a chapter on the topic of Freshman Academies. This chapter is based on a blog post that I added to this site in December 2011.
Here's my concern with the chapter: I want this chapter to help people realize what's most important when it comes to Freshman Transition Programs and to help them create the most effective program for their school. In doing so, it could easily sound as though I am against - or even bashing - the Academy model. I don't want to do that at all.
I'm hoping that members of this network will read the draft of the chapter that I have posted below and then give me some feedback. How did it read? Did it make sense? Anyone see any major problems? Errors? Could it be explained better?
Thanks! I look forward to hearing what people have to say - a little nervous perhaps but excited about the idea of receiving feedback.
Freshman Transition Program v.
Freshman Academy Model
What’s the Difference?
Language has meaning, and meaning is important for understanding. So before we begin discussing the essential components of Freshman Transition, we’d like to make sure that authors and readers are on the same page regarding some important terminology. Specifically we need to discuss the term Freshman Academy.
As we have worked with high schools across the country, we have noticed that the term Freshman Academy has almost become synonymous for Freshman Transition Program. This is a mistake along the same lines as saying that the word Hammer is synonymous with the word Tool. A hammer is a type of tool, and a Freshman Academy is a type of Freshman Transition Program. But just like there are more tools than just hammers, there are also more types of Freshman Transition Programs than just Freshman Academies. Furthermore, while a hammer is often the best tool to use for a job, it really isn't all that great for sawing wood.
Freshman Academies are often a great method, but there are schools and settings in which they are simply not the best choice. While we are not opposed to the Freshman Academy model in general, we are opposed to it if it is not the best model for your school. We do not want our readers to view the essential components we discuss in subsequent chapters in light of whether or not they will work in the readers’ schools in an Academy model. Rather, read with the outlook of how can these ideas fit into my school. In the end, that might be in an Academy model, but it might not.
If your school has a Freshman Academy and it's working, then more power to you. This is not an attempt to convince you to change. If something works for you then use it. However, we regularly get questions from educators who are having difficulty making their Freshman Academies work. The problems they run into are the problems inherent in the Academy model. Since Academies are becoming so prevalent, we feel it necessary to spend some time discussing those inherent problems. Again, the goal is not to get you to change your model. The goal is to make sure you have the information needed to make the best decision for your school.
Let’s define what we mean by an Academy. A Freshman Academy is a model of Freshman Transition that is designed to separate freshmen from the general high school population. Usually in this model, freshmen spend all of their day or a majority of their day in or on a separate hall, wing, floor, or building.
While we are not sure where, when, or how the idea of the Freshman Academy first developed, as already stated, it is a mistake to assume that you must have an academy in order to transition freshmen into high school. As you read this book, you will see that the essential components of a Freshman Transition Program can be met in an Academy model or in what we call the Departmentalized Approach.
The Departmentalized Approach is the more traditional school structure. Math classes are located near each other while Science classes might be on a different floor or hall. In other words, the essential components can be addressed by completely restructuring a school by creating an Academy or by leaving the school as is.
6 Characteristics of a Good Program
When we help schools develop Freshman Transition Programs, we try to help them create a program that:
- Is flexible: Every school is different and a school's needs change over time. A good Freshman Transition Program will be able to flexibly adjust to a school's needs and those changes.
- Is not a "resource hog": A school's master schedule resources - rooms, teachers, periods, etc - are limited. Programs that drain too many resources will not fit well into a master schedule. (see chapter 12)
- Does not have a perceived negative impact on the rest of the building: Nothing kills a program faster than dissent from within your own building.
- Inherently addresses the essential components of freshman transition: (see chapters 3-11)
- Empowers teachers: The needs of freshmen are not met by a program. The needs of freshmen are met by amazing teachers who are allowed to teach in an environment that leads to continuous growth and mutual professional support.
- Addresses the Freshman Problem: What is it that causes freshmen to have so many problems? The goal of a Freshman Transition Program is to address those needs as efficiently and effectively as possible.
If your school employs an Academy model and it meets those 6 criteria, then then please read the rest of this book looking for ideas to strengthen what you are already doing. However, if you are trying to transition freshmen and were frustrated because you could not figure out how to make an Academy work, then as you read, begin to picture the ideas in this book fitting into your school’s current configuration.
Inherent Problems with the Academy Model
The inherent problems that many schools find with the Academy model is that Academies tend to: be inflexible, drain too many resources, alienate others in the building, not inherently address the essential components of freshman transition, not inherently empower teachers, not inherently address the Freshman Problem. Here is what we mean:
- Flexibility: Academies tend to be very inflexible. The concept of ALL freshmen spending ALL or MOST of their day in the SAME location is very restrictive. Do all of your freshmen need the services and support of the Academy? The answer is that they probably do not. However, if you create a Freshman Academy and then leave out some freshmen, you have just created a two-tiered school. Instead, some schools with Academies find themselves trying to force all freshmen into the Academy whether it makes sense of not.
If you study your freshman data over the past 5 years, I bet you will find that between 10% and 30% of your freshmen each year do not exhibit the negative data – high retention, failure, discipline, and truancy rates – that has led to your desire to create a Freshman Transition Program. So should they be a part of your Freshman Transition Program? Perhaps they should, but that depends on your available resources. It is quite possible that in your attempt to force all freshmen into your academy you will end up severely limiting some of their options. In many schools with Academies the options that freshmen have are definitely limited in order to allow the Academy to exist.
- Resource Hog: A school's resources are precious. If you are the person responsible for creating your school’s master schedule each year then you know just how valuable your teachers, rooms, and class periods are - not to mention your school’s finances. Many schools have found that the Academy model makes it quite difficult to maximize those resources.
All programs drain resources to some degree because they all require teachers, rooms, class periods, and money. We are not aware of a Transition model that requires no resources, but an Academy, by virtue of its separation from the rest of the school and the fact that all freshmen are in it, often creates too large of a drain.
For example, if all freshmen will be part of your Transition Program then by definition you will need more teachers than you would if it did not include the freshmen who, according to your data, don't exhibit the "Freshman Problem." You will also run into an issue with teachers who are in the Academy but are also needed in the rest of the building. What about non-freshmen who need to take a freshman-level class? Will you allow non-freshmen into your physical Freshman Academy, or will additional resources need to be provided to ensure that only freshmen are in your Academy? What about Science? Will your Academy be able to have Science labs? Will money have to be spent to convert a portion of your building? What will not receive funding as a result of the decision to spend money on building/retrofitting an Academy?
If your school has the resources to devote to an Academy and wants to do so, then by all means go for it. However, we often run into schools that think they cannot transition freshmen because they cannot devote resources to an Academy. This is a mistake.
- Perceived Negative Impact: It seems as though there are some individuals in our schools who complain about every new program, idea, or initiative that comes along. While we do not want to let the relatively few complainers among us dictate what we are willing to try or not try, it is unwise to add perceived legitimacy to their gripes. Therefore, it is to our advantage to develop programs and initiatives that fit as seamlessly as possible into our school cultures. This is where the Academy model often falls short.
Separating all freshmen into a separate hall, wing, floor, or building will naturally have an impact on the school has a whole. There is a great chance that teachers not associated with the Academy will have to move rooms or have their days somehow altered. While this alone is not reason enough to abandon the Academy model, it does raise the question of whether or not 'the juice will be worth the squeeze." If your plan for improvement increases odds for complaining and griping in your building, you better be sure that your plan is one that will last long-term with the outcome you desire.
- Inherently addresses the essential components of freshman transition: The essential components of freshman transition will be discussed in detail throughout the remainder of this book, so we will not go into great detail describing them here. There is no doubt that those essential components can be provided within an Academy model, but we would contend that there is nothing about the Academy model that inherently or uniquely fulfills these needs. In fact, from our experience the number one component – the team of teachers sharing a group of students and a common planning time – does not in any way need the Academy model in order to exist.
- Empowers Teachers: A program's effectiveness is completely reliant upon the quality of the teachers involved in it. Therefore, it makes sense for a Freshman Transition Program to be structured in a manner that inherently leads to an improvement in teacher quality. This is where the power of teaming teachers comes into play.
Empowering teachers can occur in almost any type of setting or program structure, but it is an inherent benefit of teaming. Whether a school uses an Academy model or not, if it really wants to make an impact on its freshmen it must first and foremost ensure that the empowerment of its teachers is at the core.
This means that it makes sense to first figure out how to make a teaming model work. If you then discover that the teaming model can work within the Academy model, then you can consider the Academy model. However, if you figure out that the best way to team will not work within the Academy, then we recommend forgetting about the Academy and going with what enables teaming.
- Addresses the Freshman Problem: As already stated, your freshmen probably have your school's highest rates of truancy, failure, retention, and discipline. Your Freshman Transition Program should be one that is structured to deal with the causes of those problems. While an Academy can be designed to do so, there is little about that structure that inherently address these issues.
Think about what an Academy does. An Academy isolates freshmen from older students. Does this mean that the reason freshmen have the problems they have is because they are around older students? While there could be some notable exceptions, in general the answer to that question is "no.” In fact, in many cases educators know the exact opposite to be true. Freshmen often will behave better when they intermingle with more mature students than they do when they are "quarantined."
An Academy also prevents freshmen from having to walk from one end of the building to another. Does this mean that the reason freshmen have the problems they do is because they have to walk across the building between classes? Again, the answer is no. While freshmen may get into trouble in the hallways, it is difficult to see this issue being worthy of a massive restructuring.
The problem with freshmen starts with the fact that they are at an unusual juncture in life where they must make decisions with long-term consequences but too often lack the maturity and foresight to make those decisions well. Furthermore, they leave a relatively nurturing environment and come into a high school where they are easily overlooked and where they begin to slip through the cracks.
More than isolation, what they need is a team of teachers to watch over them and to work together to provide the supports, standardized expectations, and life lessons that they need to survive this critical year and be prepared for the rest of high school. This can definitely happen within the Academy model, but a team of teachers' effectiveness is not limited by its geographical location.
Let us clarify again why this chapter and discussion about Academies is worthwhile. We have no desire to attack the Freshman Academy model or criticize schools that use it. What we want to do is to challenge what we see as the quickly-emerging conventional wisdom that in order to transition freshmen a school must have an Academy.
If the problems associated with a Freshman Academy are easily surmountable in your school, then by all means create one, but please recognize from the outset that there are some inherent difficulties in creating a Freshman Academy. The mission of preparing freshmen is essential for a school and a student's success. It is much bigger than any one model. So if you are having figuring out how to make an Academy work, try looking at it from a different angle. Maybe the problem isn't with Freshman Transition but instead with your model. If you are starting a Freshman Transition Program, do not jump on the Academy bandwagon just because it is there. Take a wide view and find the model that most flexibly and appropriately addresses your concerns and meets the needs of students.
As you read about the essential components of Freshman Transition discussed in the next nine chapters, think about how they would best fit into your school’s existing structure. On the one hand, you might begin to envision a positive and productive way to employ an Academy model in your school. On the other hand, you just might find that transitioning your school’s freshmen requires far less change than you originally thought.