The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Time of Transition

by Elizabeth Duffrin

Students' academic success as early as the first semester in high school can make or break their chances of eventually graduating. Melissa Roderick's work measuring whether 9th grade students are "on track"—and how to provide support for those who are lagging behind—is grounded in a recognition of this. Research compiled in "Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners" only confirms that it's crucial to pay close attention to transitions. "What happens right away in a new institution has a huge impact on somebody's success in that institution," says Camille Farrington. "If you intervene in the first couple of weeks [you can] change a student's trajectory."

Freshman year of high school is one of the most crucial periods for building a student's sense of belonging and teaching learning strategies, academic behaviors and academic mindsets, the researchers found. In a new environment, freshmen are reassessing their own competence and sense of belonging. At the same time, they discover that they're no longer as closely monitored as they were in elementary school, making it easier to fall behind and fail classes. "While they're redefining themselves, we simultaneously pull support and become more punitive," Roderick observes. "There's no other transition like it."

Supporting noncognitive factors can build students' academic behavior, perseverance and attitudes towards learning that research shows can become ingrained for their whole high school career. Pritzker College Prep on Chicago's Near Northwest Side, part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, has no special selection criteria. The high school is predominantly Hispanic and 98 percent low-income. Most students arrive with academic skills three to five years below grade level, which is typical for Chicago Public Schools.

To help get students ready for success, teachers freely swap learning strategies, like the one math teacher Paige Stoecklin uses to help students make sense of word problems. When her 2nd period freshmen post a low average on an algebra exam, she reminds them of the handmade poster on the wall that outlines steps like "circle missing, unknown or wanted information."

Stoecklin has them redo their exams as a classroom exercise, an approach aimed at not only building academic skills but also reinforcing academic mindsets. While the original grades will stand, she wants them to realize that they can, in fact, do the work, "If they feel successful, that's what will lead them to grow and work hard," she explains. Downstairs, Charles Rosentel encourages risk-taking in his freshman writing class. The message, he says, is "being right is not the way to get ahead—being willing to be right or wrong is the way to get ahead. It's creating an environment without shame."

If a student answers incorrectly to a question posed in class, rather than call on someone else, he asks a series of questions to help the student arrive at a correct answer. As encouragement, the students finger snap for classmates whose answers they agree with, a strategy borrowed from KIPP Charter Schools. "There are usually more snaps for kids who come to [the answer] after some struggle," Rosentel says, "than for kids who get it right the first time." 

Back to "Getting Their Minds Ready"