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Why do Freshman Academies sometimes fail?

Why do Freshman Academies sometimes fail?

The answer – which will sound confusing at first – is because they are academies. Huh? Let me explain.

First of all let me refer you to 2 previous posts:

1. The Pros and Cons of the Academy Approach
2. The Pros and Cons of the Departmentalized Approach

Those posts discuss the ups and downs of two different approaches to Freshman Transition Program:

The Academy Approach – where freshmen are segregated into a separate hall, wing, floor, or building

The Departmentalized Approach – where freshmen are not segregated but instead a team of teachers, whose classrooms are located within their departments, shares a group of freshmen

It’s probably going to sound to some people as though I am saying that Freshman Academies are not good ideas. That is not what I am saying. If it sounds that way, please re-read The Pros and Cons of the Academy Approach to see that I point out quite a few positives to this approach.

However, in my dealings with schools and educators from around the country I have found that many people assume that the only way to have a successful Freshman Transition Program is to use the Academy Approach. I think it is important that a school not jump on a bandwagon, but instead research thoroughly all its options.

Schools starting a Freshman Transition Program – or any program for that matter – need to start off thinking long-term. What will be sustainable? What will still be working and functioning 15 years from now? Here is a fact to keep in mind: The less a program intrudes upon those in the school who are not a part of the program, the better the chance that the program will last. The opposite is also true: The more a program intrudes upon those in the school who are not a part of the program, the better the chance that the program will NOT last.

So when Freshman Academies do not work it is often because of their inherent weakness – they tend to have too great of an impact on too many people in a school. For some reason it is common for teachers in a school to resent a program of which they are not a part. When a program of which they are not a part impacts their daily routine, they resent it even more. This seems to be especially true of Freshman Transition Programs, with some other teachers in the school afraid that 9th grade teachers will be “babying” freshmen and passing the 9th grade problem on to the 10th grade.

Department chairs often resent the Academy Approach as they feel it pulls Academy teachers away from the rest of the department.

Elective area teachers sometimes complain that the Academy alters the way they traditionally interact with freshmen.

In order to make room for the Academy, it is not uncommon to displace non-Academy teachers.

Some teachers who would be good Academy teachers do not like the isolation from the rest of the building.

The Academy Approach typically necessitates including all freshmen thus becoming more intrusive on the lives of students and families who may not need the support of the Academy. (For more on this see the following post.)

A separate Academy has a greater impact on the school’s overall master schedule. A master schedule can only have so many priorities. More than likely the Academy will cause certain individuals to lose the priority status in the schedule that they previously held.

It takes a high level of administrative support and effort to keep an academy going since a true school within a school is being created. Most schools see a fairly high turnover rate for administrators. What will happen when the current administration is gone? Will the new administrators place the same level of priority on the Academy?

So am I saying that Academies can’t work? No, what I am doing is answering my initial question:

Why do Freshman Academies sometimes fail? The answer is because they are Academies and inherently leave a large footprint on a school. In some schools the Academy Approach works very well based on the school’s resources, schedule, personnel, and culture. But in other settings the very nature of an Academy causes it to not last long-term. If a program can’t last long-term then it has failed. Too many fads come and go in education. Our schools need programs and ideas that can have a lasting impact over a long period of time.

This is where the Departmentalized Approach might be favorable to some schools. While it is not a perfect approach - (again, re-read my blog on its pros and cons) – it does leave a smaller footprint on a school. It takes less administrative effort to keep it going. It doesn’t compete with as many other priorities in a school. From a master schedule perspective it really only requires that students are placed on teams and that teachers on the same team have a free period together. It is easier to apply to only the freshmen who most need it.

Let me repeat – I AM NOT SAYING THAT FRESHMAN ACADEMIES CANNOT WORK. I just want to encourage educational leaders out there to look at multiple options. Sometimes school boards demand that a school “do something” about the 9th grade problem. Schools look around and find that a neighboring school – maybe even several schools – has an Academy. Starting an Academy will allow the school to definitely say they are “doing something”. And while the Academy might work wonderfully, I feel it incumbent upon me to share some other ideas as well.

I hope this post is helpful to someone out there. Please let me know if you have any questions or ideas to add to this.

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Comment by Bill Betzen on January 22, 2010 at 7:49am
I will try to keep you up to date. We have several more schools now exploring starting School Archive Projects. Since a donor has given money for the vaults it takes nothing but an email from the principal, and a volunteer to run the access to the vault, to install a vault and start the program in a school. We did a survey both before and after the letter writing by the class in 2007. It indicated that writing the letter alone improved the percentage of students planning to graduate, and to continue studies after high school, by over 20%. That gives a small indication of the power of focusing on the future.

This current year we found that there has been a 5% increase in the 11th and 12th grade enrollments in all 32 Dallas ISD high schools combined. This was an increase of 758 students. Of that increase 417 of them came from the two schools who have received almost all the School Archive Project students. Thus 55% of the improvement happened in just two of 32 schools, and those two schools were the schools receiving most of our students. More details are at along with spreadsheets etc.....

Two of the new schools now starting Archive Projects are Sunset High School, one of the high schools with the greatest improvement already documented, and the other middle school also feeding into that same high school. Now both middle schools feeding into Sunset have School Archive Projects. If, within the next 4 years, that high school has a dropout rate that continues to fall as rapidly as it has over the past 4 years, we will have a definite victory! Four years ago less than 44% of 9th grade students at Sunset were graduating. Now we are up to almost 50%. By 2015 we may be past a 60% graduation rate and near 70%! Focusing students onto their own futures is the answer!

Does anyone doubt that truth? Why have we not done this long ago for dropout prevention in a more physical manner. The 500-pound vault is just a very visible reminder of the future, and the critical value of plans for that future, that students walk past several times every day in the school lobby.

Once former students begin to return to reclaim their letters in the Fall of 2014, their critical feedback, and talk with students, will show the true power of this focus on the future.

It was that first class who wrote letters for the vault who were part of the largest graduation class in over a decade at BOTH of the high schools our middle school students feed into! Something good is definitely happening!
Comment by Scott Habeeb on January 21, 2010 at 8:39pm
Thanks, Bill, for sharing your experiences. That would probably make a pretty interesting blog post in and of itself. You could keep us up-to-date on how the project goes.
Comment by Bill Betzen on January 21, 2010 at 8:30pm
I agree with your encouragement of educational leaders to look at multiple options. I specifically am a very strong believer both in simplicity and in forcing the fewest transitions possible upon our students. I do not like the idea of a separate freshman academy for those reasons.

During 28 years in child placement social work I developed a strong support for the power of a persons own story to change and heal. That story must be known, and then accepted, and constantly articulated.

Too many of our middle school students have no connection to their own history, their own story, their own future. In 2005 at our inner city Dallas middle school we started a project to help our students regain a connection to their own story and their own futures. A 350-pound vault was donated to the school and bolted to the floor in the school lobby. 10 shelves were place inside and our 8th graders began an annual tradition in 2005 of writing long letters to themselves before leaving for high school. They write about their own history, stories important in their lives, and their plans for 10 years into the future. These letters were sealed into a self-addressed envelope and held for a photo with the rest of their Language Arts Class in front of the vault. They then lined up and place their letters onto the shelf for their class.

The next day they each received two copies of that photo, one for their parents for safe keeping and one for them which was usually quickly autographed by classmates. On the back of each photo is a label describing the photo and documenting the plans for the class 10 year reunion in November of the 10th year. They are encouraged to call to help in the planning, given numbers and an address at which to contact the school. They are told that at the reunion the vault will be opened for them to retrieve their letters. They are also reminded that they will be invited at the reunion to speak with the then current 8th grade classes about their recommendations for success. They are warned to be prepared for questions such as "What would you do differently if you were 13 again?"

This has been a very popular project with our students. Over 95% choose to write letters for the vault which now holds over 2,000 letters. See for details. This project has now spread to 4 more schools within Dallas ISD.

Compared to the Freshman Academy idea the value of the School Archive Project is that it is minimally intrusive while at the same time having a maximum effect. The vault is seen several times every day by our inner city students, over 93% of whom are on the free lunch program. They are constantly reminded of the value of working for their own futures.
Comment by Scott Habeeb on December 31, 2009 at 4:38pm
Chris - thanks for the comment. I will add, though, that team teaching is rather different if done properly. By team teaching I mean a team of teachers sharing a group of students. I don't mean interdisciplinary instruction. Teachers working as a team empowers teachers. Not all teachers make good team teachers, though. The team can oversee the freshmen better and teach them the skills they will need to continue through high school. To make this happen the team must be a priority in the master schedule. However, it doesn't have to dominate the schedule or lessen many other priorities in order to occur. In other words, teaming empowers teacher to meet students' needs without intruding too much on the school as a whole.
Comment by Chris Williams on December 31, 2009 at 2:44pm
I've talked to many principals regarding the academy approach and they have said the same thing. Team teaching also has similar drawbacks. The idea of the transition program is to get the freshmen into the "routine" of high school and out of the middle school mentality. Just as middle school teachers must struggle to get some students out of the elem ed mentality, high school teachers must get freshman out of the middle school. It's part of the growing and maturation process. A freshman transition program would work best if it actually started in 8th grade. 8th and 9th grade teachers have to have better communication and work more closely together (buzzword: collaboration) in order to get the students ready for the next level of education. But, as with many teachers, the problem is not so much the willingness to do this, it is a matter of time.
We need, like the blog says, a long-term solution and not a "program du jour". If our central offices would understand this and get out of the way, the schools would be in much better condition.

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