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Making the Grade












Students entering the final phase of secondary school face numerous academic, social and behavioral demands. Pressures mount, and more than at any time before, mistakes like missed homework, failed tests and texting in class can have serious consequences.

Although “high school” means more responsibility, it does not necessarily include a move to a new building. Some students don’t change locations at all after seventh grade; others move to a high school building in 10th grade. Wherever they are, students begin their academic journeys as high schoolers in ninth grade.

To get a sense of what new high school students can expect, Family Times interviewed area administrators, counselors, parents and students. By all accounts, the high school years are an increasingly rigorous, and sometimes tumultuous, phase of teenage life. Young people can transition successfully with the right mindset—accepting the increased responsibility—and by using the support of their teachers, counselors, peers, and yes, their parents.

“Accountability—that increases in all aspects of school,” says Najah Salaam, a former academic dean at Jordan-Elbridge and Syracuse City School districts. “On the academic side, repeating courses is a reality. With behavior, there’s no more timeout: It’s detention. Horseplay can get you suspended. That can be hard to process.”

Salaam says high school students need more than just academic support. “Kids that age are still learning in all aspects of their lives,” she says.

Even high-achieving students can get caught off guard. “Good students in middle school can see their grades drop in freshman year,” Salaam says. “They tend to get a lot more social, and then you add on the increased academic demands. . .  things get overlooked.”

Salaam advises parents to develop a deeper relationship with their teen—not a more casual one. “Parents tend to want to give their child more space when they get to high school. Don’t do that,” she advises. “Be involved. They are trying to belong, and they don’t yet. They’re trying to develop their personality. So, get to know your child. They will appreciate it no matter what they say.”

Independence is greater
Nanette Szczesny, mother of C.J., who graduated last spring, and Michael, an incoming sophomore at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, says a good transition program and collaborative district resources help students ease into high school life.

C-NS students—about 2,100 from six elementary schools—come together in two middle schools, then junior high, before entering the high school at 10th grade. For many, the hardest adjustment is dealing with the sheer size of the building. But students are also expected to be more responsible.

“Teachers expect students to keep track of assignments and deadlines,” Szczesny says. “I think some kids do run into trouble adjusting to the increased independence.”

With a few transitions under his belt already, Michael is relatively unfazed about his first year in the high school building. C.J., a freshman at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, says he was well prepared for high school, and expects that his brother will do just fine.

Since C-NS students attend the same junior high, social problems are rare. “If they are involved in sports or band or other activities, they’re probably somewhat connected to the peer groups they will have in high school,” Szczesny says.

“In a big school like ours, I think it’s a good idea to stay connected to your core group of friends as much as you can,” adds C.J.

Extracurricular activities help. “Those connections they make by being involved in sports, or music, are good,” says Szczesny, whose sons play baseball. “Also, the coaches know these kids have to keep their grades up, so they encourage them to put academics first. The structure helps them with time management.”

While Szczesny cites expectations of independence as a potentially difficult aspect of the high school transition, C.J. says it was actually the best part of his high school experience. “They’re getting you ready to be an adult,” he says. “They’re not controlling your every move.”

Quite often, it’s parents who struggle most with the high school transition. “I think we make it harder on ourselves than it has to be,” Szczesny says. “Sometimes you just have to trust them. If they make mistakes, they’ll hopefully learn from them. These guys are so much more resilient than we give them credit for.”

Responsibility grows
Rob McIntyre, counselor for ninth and 10th graders at Jordan-Elbridge High School, helps students avoid those mistakes. Like C-NS, the district has an extensive orientation process.

“Middle school and high school are very different,” McIntyre says. “Your status in high school is based on credits and credits only. There are 22 required credits for graduation. So, there’s not a lot of wiggle room to repeat failed courses.”

Freshmen attend orientation prior to the start of school to get acquainted with their new surroundings. From Day One, the staff focuses on helping students—about 500—grow into independent adults.

“They need to take responsibility for their work, so we encourage students to use their agendas (a school-supplied planner) to document their homework assignments,” McIntyre says. “It’s critical for time management.”

McIntyre says bullying is not a problem at J-E, but technology and its potential for abuse has been a frequent concern.

“We spend much more time addressing issues with social media than when I started here in 2001,” McIntyre says. “Phones certainly were not in school the way they are now. Kids notice problems and bring them to the guidance office. We’ve even had to call the state troopers—and we’re not alone. There’s currently some debate about how much we are going to allow (phones) to be used in the fall, but most of our students do use them in positive ways. For example, the calendar options on some phones are very helpful.”

Salaam, the former dean, has helped students navigate emotional issues at both J-E and Syracuse. “High school is a huge psychosocial adjustment,” she says. “The girls tend to be more reactive and impulsive. Young men tend to hold things in. They don’t want to snitch on a friend who has done something wrong. If someone is bothering them, they tend to laugh it off at first—let it build up. Helping students defuse some of these issues includes providing resources and support as necessary.”

McIntyre checks in with all J-E freshmen at some point before January. Most have made smooth transitions into high school life. “A lot of those kids are on cruise control, but we let them know that we are their advocates. If they need something, they should come ask for it.”

A good home-school rapport also helps. “Teenagers always want more freedom,” McIntyre says. “We approach that with the thinking of, ‘demonstrate responsibility and you will get freedom and flexibility.’ We try to get parents to reinforce that same idea with homework.”

Students at C.W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville also enter the building in 10th grade. Building-wide activities, for the school’s some 1,500 students, and numerous extracurricular opportunities make it easier for new students to connect.

“We really push that when they come up here. We want them to get involved,” says Kristen Foote, guidance counselor. “We have everything from environmental club to Key Club to debate and Model U.N.”

Help is at hand
Orientations for parents and students enable Foote to spread the word about resources. “I think more sophomores access the supports because the parents know about them,” she says. “I think it’s important for parents to know things like: Is the library open after school? Do the teachers have certain days that they stay after? Is there a help-lab or support available during their study hall or during their lunch? When they get that first five-week report, it can be an eye-opener. One assignment or one quiz, at the high school level, can make a big difference.”

C.W. Baker students can use a peer-tutoring program, among other resources. “Seek out help,” Foote says. “Parents can contact the teachers, but they will put the responsibility on the student.”

Gabrielle Piraino, a junior at C.W. Baker, says teachers are willing to help students adjust to the increasing academic demands of high school, but they want students to take initiative.

“I tell my brother (now in ninth grade), ‘The teachers are here for you.’ They are always willing to stay after school to help students,” she says. “Some are even willing to give up part of their lunch to help students.”

Sometimes, even the best preparations and services are not enough. “There are students who struggle with the course load,” Foote says. “Not all students have great study skills. We have some who, in the past, have hardly had to do any work outside of the classroom. Then they get up here and find it difficult to manage everything.”

Parents can monitor academics
Students in the Tully School District stay in one building from seventh grade through 12th. Principal Mary Ann Murphy says this configuration makes the transition for students—and teachers—relatively smooth.

Jennifer Newton, counselor at Tully Junior-Senior High School, says having consistent expectations for behavior and academic effort also helps. “The junior high teachers really know what the high school teachers’ expectations are. They’re not across town, they’re not in another building, they are right here.”

Erynn McNerney, a sophomore, says the hardest part for her was adjusting to different teaching styles and the emphasis on preparing for Regents examinations—the optional standardized tests in core subjects required for a Regents diploma in New York state. “Teachers’ expectations are really high. But it’s good because they’re raising the bar for us.”

Like other local schools, Tully uses an online program so students and parents can track academic progress. “I like the online system,” says McNerney. “I can log onto my computer when I’m in study hall and see how I’m doing, see if there’s a quiz I missed or anything I should make up.”

The immediate access to grades can be a motivator. “As far as I know, my parents don’t check it that much because they trust what I am doing,” says Chrissy Yeomans, a junior. “But some kids’ parents check it a lot. I have heard kids say they are studying more because they know their parents are going to see their grades.”

To new high schoolers, Yeomans suggests reviewing study and organization strategies. “Know how you learn best, and how you study best,” she says. “That’s something you have to develop on your own.”

Many Tully students are very active in extracurricular activities. Newton says busy students are typically better students. “They are much better organized,” the guidance counselor says. “But I suggest setting parameters for juggling extracurricular and social activities with their academic demands.”

Bradley Phelps, a Tully junior, agrees. He says while participation in school sports is demanding, he finds that he is better able to balance his time. But there is a fine line between a well-balanced student and an overburdened one.

“In a small school, there are kids who try to do everything,” says Phelps, who runs cross-country and track, and plays basketball. “Making those choices is hard.”

Murphy, who has two busy teens in the school, notes that most high school sporting events can last late into the evenings, leaving less time for homework. “That’s just one of the many little things that students have to consider at the high school level,” she says.

For college-bound students, those considerations are numerous.

“They start building a resume, for lack of a better word, at such a young age,” says Wendy Kosalek, parent of a senior and a freshman at Tully. “Everything seems to start counting in ninth grade. My kids realized that it means business. Students need community service—especially if they are on a college track. They need their academics, their extracurriculars, and maybe to fit in some kind of job experience. As a parent, there’s a dance we do in making kids understand that these things count—without overwhelming them.”

Parents’ role evolves
With her daughter entering ninth grade, Kosalek expects her role to evolve. “For my husband and me, the role of being a parent to high schoolers is not micromanaging; it’s helping them see the bigger picture,” she says. “We know where we need to be involved and where we really need to let the kids take their chances—and fail. I think we’re more focused on life lessons with our ninth-grader. With our son, there was more focus on academics.”

Certainly, every student has different needs. Kevin Antshel, associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University, works with high school students navigating a variety of problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders. For those students, starting high school can be daunting.

“For students with ADHD, the biggest challenge is academic,” Antshel says. “More is expected, but these students can have trouble meeting those expectations. Change is hard for all of us, but particularly so for someone who is internally disorganized.”

Antshel cautions parents of typical as well as special needs students not to compare their kids with others; base expectations on individual abilities and goals. While straight A’s might be a fair expectation for one child, it isn’t for all.

“Teens are constantly assessing themselves through their peers,” Antshel says. “Overly high expectations at home may create heightened anxiety.”

The first year of high school is one of the bigger milestones for parents and kids. Yet, amazingly, most students—and parents—emerge unscathed. C.W Baker’s Piraino has friends now in college who report that the preparations that happen with each step in high school have prepared them well for college and beyond.

“That’s a very reassuring feeling, knowing that what you’re doing in high school is getting you ready,” she says. p

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

Photos above:
© Daniel Thornberg | Dreamstime.com
Michael Davis Photos

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York