High School Success May Depend on Lessons Middle Schools Don't Teach

Countdown to High School is a Boston program that's filling in the gaps.
High school success may depend on lessons that most middle schools don't teach. (Photos: Troy Aossey/Getty Images)
Nov 20, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Leaving middle school for high school can be a scary time for teenagers. Scarier than they even know.

Not only do ninth graders suddenly have more responsibility, more homework, and more life stress, without much guidance on how to cope, but high school is when the dropout risk looms largest.

Countdown to High School, a Boston program, is trying to alleviate some of this stress for teenagers and help keep them in school.

The program began a few years ago when Neema Avashia, a civics teacher at Boston's McCormack Middle School, along with a few other educators, realized that kids, even high-performing kids, were desperately struggling in their first year of high school.

“There are a lot of challenges in play,” Avashia says. “Ninth-grade students suddenly have to be independent, and there is a series of issues and a lot of responsibility that goes with that. We hadn’t been preparing them for that before they got to ninth grade.”

The program, based on national and local research, began as a pilot program for middle and high school teachers with funding in six schools. In two years, the program grew to 34 schools. Last year, the funding ended, and the group had to rethink its model. Now, Countdown to High School is a three-hour stand-alone graduate course that 50 teachers in Boston have participated in so far.

For students, the program begins at the end of eighth grade when trained teachers present a series of lessons that address issues ninth graders grapple with.

In Boston, as in many U.S. cities, students don’t have to attend a school near their home but can choose where they want to go. In many instances, students have to participate in a lottery process. Other schools make students pass exams. Some pilot schools require students to write essays and obtain letters of recommendation. It’s a complicated process without much guidance, Avashia says. So her program helps kids through it.

Once they know where they're going, students are asked find the quickest public transportation route to their school. They are made familiar with the websites where this information is found. They also talk about scheduling and decide on a wake-up time.

GPA is another issue the curriculum covers. One student in a video short about Countdown to High School sums it up by saying, "Don't be so caught up in friends. Don't hang out in the hallways. Students do that—I mean that's the first thing they do. Stay on top of your schoolwork from the beginning. A lot of people decide to slack freshman year and say, 'Oh I have two or three more years up until I become a senior, and that's when I can start building.' But think about GPA. Your GPA has to be good from the beginning, not just the middle of the year." In Countdown to High School, students are taught how to correctly calculate a GPA and are told how truancy can negatively affect it.

The program also asks kids to be real with themselves if they begin to miss classes. They are encouraged to ask themselves why they are cuttingis it that they're not waking up early enough or that their friends are pressuring them or that they just don't feel comfortable in that class or in school in general? Countdown gives them tools to make relationships with teachers and deal with these scenarios.

After middle school graduation the students are greeted by similar lessons as they begin ninth grade. This ensures that students are thinking in advance about how to deal with the new challenges as they begin their high school careers.

But it’s not all left up to educators. Avashia says many times parents also don’t know where to turn to for help, and teachers may not know the answers. That’s why the course also requires teachers to write a school plan memo that includes how families will be meaningfully engaged in the choice and transition process.

Transition programs for students or teachers are rare in the United States. Washington has one called “Project Graduation” that includes a “Gear Up” component to identify seventh- and eighth-grade students needing help and a four- to six-week summer program to assist them. Hawaii has a plan to help ninth-grade students receive the instructional and support services they need to complete high school, including tutoring and academic summer camps.

Schools across the country offer online information to aid students in the transition, but many kids need more than what a website can provide. According to the National Middle School Association, the programs that help students successfully transition from middle school to high school are the ones that provide “students and families with a wealth of information about the academic, social, and organization similarities and differences between middle school and high school.”

The type of work that Countdown to High School does, Avashia says, is critical and should be continued. “I think there is a lot of research on early warning indicators on why students drop out and don't finish school,” she says. “It is really pressing that we figure out how to bridge eighth and ninth grades, and in theory, if we can help kids make a better transition to high school, we can prevent kids from dropping out.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.