Freshman academies aim to provide ninth-graders with a first-class experience

By KELLY RICHARDSON

Sunday, January 27, 2008 8:04 PM CST

HARDIN COUNTY — For most, the senior year in high school is memorable, filled with activities such as prom, homecoming queen nominations and, of course, graduation. But for some school administrators are giving a longer look at how the high school experience starts.

Four local high schools — North Hardin High School, Central Hardin High School, John Hardin High School and Elizabethtown High School — put a special emphasis on their freshmen, many with a freshmen academy, which works as a school within a school. The freshmen, for the most part, stay in one section of the school building with the same set of teachers and students.

The emphasis comes from statistics showing students who pass their freshmen year are five times more likely to graduate, said Tim Isaacs, assistant principal in charge of the freshman academy at Central Hardin High School.

“Freshmen retention is huge,” Isaacs said.

Freshmen academies are a nationwide trend. Central received a grant to help with its program, now in its second year.

“We’re beginning to refine what we do,” Isaacs said.

His office is situated near freshmen classrooms along with a counselor dedicated to the ninth-graders.

Freshmen are divided into teams, similar to a system many middle schools use. The teams share, for the most part, the same teachers in core subject areas, such as language arts and math. This way, students are around many of the same people for most of the day and a common group of teachers have a common group of students, Isaacs said.

The teachers share planning time, allowing them to discuss students’ progress and determine if problems are common among all the teachers.

The academy also includes student-teacher relationship-building components, such as academy retreats, a mentoring program and “character cards,” which teachers present to students when they see them perform a good deed.

Lori Russell teaches freshmen math at Central. She now has most of the same students all year long, instead of students moving to a new math teacher in the spring semester, which is how classes generally are constructed at Central. This allows her to get to know her students better.

“I think it’s a really good program,” Russell said.

She likes being able to meet with her fellow team teachers and students benefit by teachers planning tests and projects to occur at different times during the year, so the students aren’t inundated at one time, she said.

She has heard some complaints from students about not being able to mingle with upperclassmen and that the academy is too much like middle school.

“They don’t see the benefit of it yet,” she said.

Alex Thompson has no complaints. The freshman said it’s easier to meet new people, because he’s around them much more. And it helped his transition from St. James School, a school significantly smaller than Central.

“Back at St. James, there were 400 people in the whole school and now there were 400 people in my class,” he said.

Allyson Ross, a freshman, agreed that the academy helped her adjust to the size of the school and get to know the teachers. Her only concern is that freshmen don’t become familiar with the entire building very quickly, since they stay in one part.

The academy at North Hardin High School, which also received grant funding, is in its first year and is set up very similar. North Hardin Principal Bill Dennison said he wanted to build better relationships between students and teachers.

“We were looking for a way to make a larger school feel more personable,” he said.

One difference with North’s academy is a result of the school’s seven-period day — in contrast to Central’s four block classes. This allows freshmen to be out in the rest of the high school during three periods, which explains why Dennison hasn’t heard complaints from freshmen about being cut off from the rest of the school, he said.

North and Central aren’t stopping with freshmen to make the schools feel closer. They are also both setting up career clusters for the rest of the school. Groups of students who are interested in areas such as health, engineering or performing arts will have a track to follow, taking classes that fit into that area, and core-content classes, such as English, being geared more toward those specific areas.

Both schools plan to phase in career clusters over the next few years, officials said.

While neither school has had a graduating class come from the freshmen academy yet, officials at both schools feel it has been successful.

“I feel like it’s been received really well,” Dennison said.

Isaacs has liked what he’s seen, just comparing this year to last year.

“I see an incredible improvement this year,” he said.

One school that didn’t have tremendous success with an academy was Elizabethtown High School, said Cora Wood, assistant superintendent of secondary instruction.

Since the school is smaller, the EHS effort wasn’t able to completely keep the freshmen and teachers in one area. Teachers within the academy were needed to teach elsewhere as well, and all of the freshmen couldn’t be in one area. So they used the academy with a portion of the freshmen class for a year, keeping those students together with the same teachers.

“It just didn’t work for us that well,” Wood said.

Now, Elizabethtown High uses similar principles, but without the physical aspect of an academy. And since the school is smaller, it’s not as necessary, she said.

Teachers monitor freshmen work more often, sending home grade reports every two weeks, instead of the usual nine weeks for upperclassmen.

EHS also has teachers who are solely responsible for keeping track of students’ progress, said John Millay, superintendent of Elizabethtown Independent Schools.

“We do put a lot of emphasis on our freshmen,” Millay said.

Kelly Richardson can be reached at 1747, or at krichardson@thenewsenterprise.com.

This story, written by Kelly Richardson, was provided to One Knox courtesy of The News Enterprise. Read more stories from The News Enterprise at www.thenewsenterprise.com.