The Freshman Transition Network

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Part 3 – Creating a Freshman Transition Program – The Pros and Cons of the Departmentalized Approach

In my last post I discussed the pros and cons of the Freshman Academy approach to Freshman Transition. I defined the Freshman Academy as a method 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. I ended that post by stating that there was an alternative to the Academy. I called this alternative the Departmentalized Approach. This post will describe this approach and discuss its pros and cons.

The Departmentalized Approach does not rely on separating freshmen from the rest of the school. Instead, the freshmen teachers remain departmentalized – or however else they might already be arranged in the school. Freshmen are integrated into the school just as they have always been. The main focus in this approach then is not where the classrooms are, but what goes on in the classrooms. The teachers of the freshmen will share standardized expectations and classroom leadership strategies, teach similar learning skills, and work together to provide supports for the freshmen. In order for this method to work, 2 things must happen with the teachers of the freshmen:

1. The teachers must be teamed – the teachers from the four core areas (or from other areas as well if your master schedule will allow it) must share a group of students.
2.The teamed teachers must meet together regularly – preferably daily – in a team planning or team duty period.

In a later post I will discuss the importance of a team planning or a team duty period. For right now, though, let me say that these 2 factors are actually the most important structural factors of any Freshman Transition Program. From our work with freshmen and with many high schools, we have found that the choice between the Academy or Departmentalized Approach is not a make-it-or-break-it issue. What is a make-it-or-break-it issue is whether or not the teachers and students are teamed and whether or not the team teachers have a regular time to meet together. This is the heart and soul of setting up a Freshman Transition Program. (For more information, check out The Ninth Grade Opportunity.)

So here are the pros of the Departmentalized Approach (you may want to refer back to the last post to compare them to the Academy method.):

1. Freshmen are trained to fully navigate the difficult waters of high school because they are fully integrated.
2. Because they are not isolated or forced into a single mold, they do not lose out on any elective offerings. It doesn’t matter if their electives are only with freshmen in this model.
3. Freshmen that do not need the support of the Transition Program or who do not fit the mold, can more easily be allowed to have a different schedule or set of supports.
4. The Departmentalized Approach is usually much easier on a school’s master schedule. It is easier to make freshmen a priority without impacting your other scheduling priorities.
5. While non-teamed teachers are still often skeptical of efforts to transition freshmen, because the freshman transition teachers are with the rest of the faculty it is less likely that they will experience a backlash as though they had left the faculty.
6. Similarly, other members of a department appreciate the fact the freshman teachers are still a part of the department.

The cons of the Departmentalized Approach are (and again you may want to refer back to the last post to compare them to the Academy method.):

1. Freshmen are mixed in with upperclassmen. If this is going to be a problem, it is not resolved inherently by this approach.
2. It is more difficult to communicate a shared sense of mission because the message of the Freshman Transition Program cannot be as easily posted throughout the school as it can be in an Academy.
3. Freshmen are more likely to be tardy or get in trouble in the halls due to the fact that they will have to travel across the school rather than simply across the Academy.
4. The freshman team teachers are not together throughout the day and will have to work harder to make sure they take advantage of their team duty or team planning time.

I would encourage you to give a lot of thought to these past 2 posts. My school (Salem High School in Salem, VA) uses the Departmentalized Approach. We have been doing so since 1991, and have had great success. Please do not use it just because we do. Many schools are reporting success with the Academy approach. Please do not use just because they do. As I said earlier, the Academy or the Departmentalized Approach is not the make-it-or-break-it issue. Frankly it’s more a matter of preference and resources. After studying the pros and cons, I would encourage you to choose whichever method sounds better to you.

What is most important, though, is whether or not you team your teachers and students and whether or not your teachers have a regular team duty or team planning time. I will share more about this later. I will say here, though, that the method of Freshman Transition discussed in The Ninth Grade Opportunity can be and has been used in both the Academy and the Departmentalized Approach.

Simply isolating freshmen isn’t the answer.

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