The Freshman Transition Network

Working together to transition freshmen & transform schools from the bottom up!

Part 2 - Creating a Freshman Transition Program - Pros and Cons of an Academy

To have an Academy or not to have an Academy? That is the question.

These days when schools create Freshman Transition Programs they often use the term Freshman Academy to name their efforts. This post’s purpose will be to discuss the pros and cons of such an approach, and to introduce an alternative model.

First, let me define what I mean by the term Freshman Academy. A Freshman Academy is a means of easing the transition from middle school to high school that uses locale as its primary means. In other words, freshmen in the Academy model are separated from the rest of the high school for some period of time during the day. In some cases Academy students are in a different building, other times they are in a special wing or floor of a building, and other times they are actually located on a different campus altogether. By separating the freshmen from the rest of the high school population, freshman teachers are able to focus on their needs without some of the additional distractions that occur in a high school setting.

While the Freshman Academy model is not the only means to transition freshmen into high school, it has become a very popular method. My experiential research, which involves being a part of a Freshman Transition Program for the past 12 years as well as working with many high schools on their Freshman Transition needs for the past 6, has led to me the conclusion that the Academy model has pros and the Academy model has cons.

So what are the pros for the Academy model? They are:

1. Freshmen are less likely to be negatively influenced by older students if they are separated from the rest of the school.
2. The Academy model gives teachers and students a sense of mission, thereby leading them to an improved state because of the fact that they are focusing together on improvement.
3. Messages of success and hard work can be more uniformly communicated because there are fewer competing messages from other factions within the high school.
4. Travel time between classes is shortened leading to a smaller probability that students will encounter distractions in the hallways, get into trouble while navigating the halls, or be tardy to class.
5. The Academy teachers are able to lean on each other for support because they are located in close proximity to one another.
6. There is less of a fear of high school because students do not have to worry about dealing with pressures placed on them by upperclassmen. This allows students to get to high school classes in a safer environment.

So what are the negatives to the Academy model? They are:

1. Freshmen are not being trained how to fully navigate all the difficult waters of high school because by being in the Academy they are being protected from some of them. Will they experience a new set of transition problems when they move into the high school?
2. The Academy model, depending on how strictly the students are segregated, can cause freshmen to have limited choices when it comes to elective offerings. Not all electives can be offered in the Academy if it is isolated.
3. The Academy model also often has an unintended effect of forcing all freshmen into one mold. If a student does not need the isolation of an Academy to be successful in high school, but must be there anyway, then that student may not be being served in the best manner. This is especially true if the student must give up choices and options by being in the Academy.
4. A school’s master schedule can only have so many parameters before it begins to get cluttered and unworkable. For a Freshman Transition Program to work best it must be one of the top 2 or 3 priorities in a master schedule. An Academy can sometimes occupy too many available resources and make it difficult to work the master schedule for the rest of the school.
5. It is very common for faculty members not part of a Freshman Transition Program to be skeptical of the attempt to meet the needs of freshmen. They are often afraid that freshmen will be babied and socially promoted. When the Freshman Transition Program is too far removed from the rest of the school it is easier for non-members to criticize or complain about the Academy.
6. This one is similar to #5. If a Freshman Transition Program takes members of a department away from the rest of the department, it is not uncommon for “turf wars” to begin as members of the department resent the fact that the freshman teacher’s loyalties seem in question.

I’m sure that there are more pros and cons; however, these are the main factors that I have run across. As you work to create your Transition Program, I would encourage you to consider them.

I would now like to introduce an alternative to the Academy model. This alternative model is what I call the Departmentalized Approach. In the Departmentalized Approach, freshman teachers teach in the area of the building where the rest of their department is located.

That’s all for now… In my next post I will discuss the pros and cons of the Departmentalized Approach. Let me know if you have any thoughts or if you can relate to any of the pros and cons I listed.

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on April 13, 2009 at 2:33pm
I know that many members of The Freshman Transition Network have 9th grade academies in their schools. This post - about the pros and cons of the academy approach - is based on what I have learned while working with schools who have academies. However, my school does not use this approach. I think it could provide a useful service to other members of the Network, as well as to future members who are trying to start Freshman Transition Programs, if those of you who are part of academies would leave some feedback about some of the pros and cons you have experienced. If you will simply add comments after this you could let us all know what has worked and what hasn't. Thanks - I hope many of you will share!

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