This guest blog is written by Malaina Kapoor, a current high school student who decided to homeschool in order to expand her learning by blending interdisciplinary, real world, and academic-focused learning. Her work has been published by Education Next, The Mercury News, and the Bluefire literary journal.
This is the second blog post in my four-part series that addresses the student transition from traditional middle schools to innovative high schools. To read my first blog post, click here. As a part of my research, I spoke with parents, students, and administrators about their experiences with transition. The students I spoke with had trouble adjusting to innovative schools because of the drastically different way they were being taught. Some were overwhelmed by discussion-based and hands-on learning, while others were unsure how to handle newfound independence or didn’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities and projects presented to them. Almost every student I spoke with wished their school’s teachers and staff took the time early in the year to make students intimately familiar with every nuance of the school’s logistics and educational philosophy. “[It required a] mental shift,” said Nevin, a rising sophomore. “Things are still weird… new… confusing…unfamiliar” said Flo, a rising junior.
Traditional middle school transition programs
I began my research by looking at twelve traditional middle schools to see whether they had invested in programs to ease the transition to innovative high school. By and large, schools had not. This means that the burden falls almost entirely on innovative schools to acclimate students to new instructional models.
Innovative high school transition programs
The innovative high schools I examined had transition programs that were much more robust than the middle school ones. For example, Ideate Academy in San Diego, California has a “summer bridge” program in which older students and staff meet incoming freshmen and help them get acclimated to their new environment. High Tech High in Southern California conducts home visits before school starts, allowing students to ask questions and familiarize themselves with the program. ChiTech Academy in Chicago designs a “Freshman Odyssey” project to introduce new students to project-based learning.
Most schools also offer advisory programs that they claim are integral to their education model, citing efforts to create communities and give students essential training in areas such as project planning and time management that they would need in a more independent educational environment. However, students from these schools still report feeling confused and unsure of how best to take advantage of their new educational environments. This could be due to the fact that transition programs often failed to address issues such as day-to-day differences from a traditional school and characteristics such as internal motivation and self-responsibility.
Based on my interviews, one of the most comprehensive programs I found to introduce students to innovative education came from Acton Academy. Acton is a K-12 school based in Austin, Texas that believes in “learner-driven education.” It has a clear transition plan for all students, regardless of whether they are moving into middle or high school. The school uses project-based and blended learning to support student independence and intrinsic motivation. High school students get apprenticeships outside of school, move at their own pace within academic subjects, and conduct deep dives into topics ranging from physics to mortality. Acton has designed a summer-long, online, student-led program for incoming classes to understand what to expect in their new environment. Students access this through a Learning Management System built by Acton themselves.
The Acton transition program focuses heavily on helping new students become more independent. Students must earn an “independent learner” badge before setting foot on campus. To achieve this, they must complete a number of challenges designed to prepare them for the project, feedback, and responsibility-driven environment they are about to enter. One challenge, designed by staff, required students to bake a loaf of bread on their own, and then get feedback from five other people. Other challenges include brainteasers and rope knotting. In addition, students have to set “SMART goals” each day. These goals can range from learning to divide fractions, to being nice to a sibling for a day. Each student must meet their smart goals for 30 consecutive days before being allowed to enter the classroom. This helps give students a sense of purpose and reduce their susceptibility to distraction on day one. The transition program also provides training on Acton’s badge system, and videos and readings on topics that are central to Acton’s philosophy such as growth mindset and flow. As a result, students arrive on the first day with a value system in line with the school culture. The school’s use of an online transition program is very effective in helping students get accustomed to their new learning environment while giving them a jumpstart on the management skills they will need throughout the year.
Based on my research, I recommend that innovative schools develop online summer transition programs that familiarize students with the following concepts:
- Goal setting, planning, and time management. Through sample exercises such as Acton’s daily goal program, students can get used to the techniques and skills they will need to succeed in such an innovative environment. Students can also read articles and watch videos with helpful, accessible tips.
- Day in the life. In order to gain a greater understanding of what day-to-day life will be like, schools can create videos, articles, or other media to describe a day in the life of a student. Here schools can also include sample projects and skills mastered by students, so incoming students can be excited and prepared for the school year to come.
- How schedules and classes will work. Students I talked with had many questions around logistics. Having resources to understand the nuts and bolts of a school’s policies can help students feel more comfortable and confident.
- Expectations. It is imperative that students have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them during the school year. Having students walk in with that knowledge can help alleviate behavioral, social, and academic problems that might otherwise pop up. Terms such as “no homework” and “independent learning” can lead students to believe their new learning experience will be easy, and that they will not have to measure up to any standards. Making expectations clear before school starts can help students gain a more productive attitude.
In my next post, I will discuss the academic challenges faced by students of innovative schools, and what schools can do to address these problems.