Working together to transition freshmen & transform schools from the bottom up!
Over the past decade as I have worked with high schools across the country, I 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. 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. This post will explain the inherent problems within the Academy model.
First of all, let's make this clear right up front - 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, I regularly get questions from educators who are having trouble making their Freshman Academies work. The problems they run into are the problems inherent in the Academy model. So this post is really intended for the schools who are researching Freshman Transition and for the schools who are having trouble making their Freshman Academy model work.
Let me define what I 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. (For more information on this Academy model visit this previous post.) I'm not sure where, when, or how the idea of the Freshman Academy developed, but as I have already stated, it is a mistake to assume that you must have an academy in order to transition freshmen into high school.
When I help schools develop Freshman Transition Programs (FTP), I try to help them create a program that:
The problem with the Academy model is that it tends to be inflexible, drain too many resources, alienate others in the building, does not inherently address the essential components of freshman transition, does not inherently empower teachers, and does not inherently address the Freshman Problem. If your school's Academy meets those 6 criteria, then count yourself blessed. However, the typical academy does not. Let me explain.
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? Probably not. However, if you create a Freshman Academy and then leave out some freshmen you have just created a 2-tiered school. So instead schools with Academies find themselves forcing 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 - retention, failure, discipline, truancy - that has led to your desire to create an FTP. So should they be a part of your FTP? Maybe - but that depends on your available resources. It's quite possible that in your attempt to force all freshmen into your academy you will end up severely limiting some of their options. However, in most schools with Academies the options that freshmen have are definitely limited in order to allow the Academy to exist.
2. Resource Hog
A school's resources are precious. As one who creates a master schedule each year, I know just how valuable your teachers, rooms, and class periods are - not to mention your 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, and class periods - and money. I'm not saying that there is an FTP model out there 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 FTP then by definition you will need more teachers than you would if 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, I get frustrated when schools think that they can't transition freshmen because they can't devote resources to an Academy. The two are not the same.
3. 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 don't want to let the few complainers amongst us dictate what we are willing to try or not try, we also don't want to add perceived legitimacy to their gripes. Therefore, it's 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 a much greater 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.
4. Inherently addresses the essential components of freshman transition
The essential components of freshman transition are addressed elsewhere on this site as well as in our book, The Ninth Grade Opportunity, so I won't go into great detail describing them here. However, those components include a team of teachers that meets together regularly, standardized expectations, standardized classroom leadership strategies, the teaching of learning skills, increased parent/teacher communication, student recognition, and support services among others. There is no doubt that those essential components can be provided within an Academy model, but I would contend that there is nothing about the Academy model that inherently or uniquely fulfills these needs. In fact, from my experience the number one factor - the number one component - which is a team of teachers sharing a group of students and a common planning/meeting time, does not in any way need the Academy model in order to exist.
5. Empowers Teachers
A program's effectiveness is completely reliant upon the quality of the teachers involved in it. Therefore, it makes sense for an FTP to be structured in a manner that inherently leads to an increase in teacher quality. This is where the power of teaming teachers comes into play. The ways in which teaming teachers empowers those teachers has already been discussed on this site in the following posts:
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 my recommendation is to scrap the Academy and go with what enables teaming.
6. Addresses the Freshman Problem
Your freshmen probably have your school's highest rates of truancy, failure, retention, and discipline. Your FTP should be one that is structured to deal with the causes of those problems. While an Academy can be designed to do so, it doesn't 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, this is not an issue 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. 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. What they need - more than isolation - is a team of teachers to support 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.
Why did I make this incredibly long post? Am I trying to attack schools that have created Freshman Academies? NO. What I hope to do is to challenge what I see as a 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 - actually of saving them from themselves - is essential for a school and a student's success. It is much bigger than any one model. So if you're having trouble with your academy, let's give it another think. Maybe the problem isn't with Freshman Transition but instead with your model. If you're starting an FTP, don't just jump on the Academy bandwagon just because it's there. Let's take a wide look and find the model that most flexibly and appropriately addresses your concerns and meets the needs of students.
For more information on how you can use a teaming model to transition your freshmen check out the book that Alan Seibert, Ray Moore and I wrote, The Ninth Grade Opportunity: Transforming Schools from the Bottom Up. If you have questions or if I can help out you or your school, please do not hesitate to use the Freshman Transition Network to contact me. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.