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  • Creating a Culture that Helps Students Manage the Transition to High School

    Hopkinton High School - Hopkinton, MA

    The transition to high school can be challenging for students, both from an academic and social standpoint. Ninth graders must often adjust to more rigorous coursework, a larger school, and a host of other changes. Many high schools and districts have implemented a variety of strategies to manage this transition, through both academic and social supports.

    At Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, MA, the UNITE Mentoring Program has been one of the school’s transition strategies for more than 10 years. “The UNITE Program matches juniors and seniors with ninth grade students to assist them in their transition to high school,” says Evan Bishop, Principal of Hopkinton High School. Upperclassmen must apply and interview for this mentor position, as well as commit to attending a leadership skills training, participating in a year-long course on mentoring, and leading ninth-grade student advisories, among other responsibilities. Bishop says that his staff selects between 80 to 100 juniors and seniors each year for the program. “Every school does this transition differently, but putting leadership and responsibility in the hands of upper class students from all walks of life who can talk about all the different and great ways to get involved in high school is very powerful for the ninth grade students that look up to them,” Bishop says.

    Before school even begins, incoming ninth grade students have many points of contact with their UNITE mentees. Ninth grade advisories are determined months before school starts, and four UNITE mentors are assigned to each advisory of approximately twelve students. Rising ninth graders meet their UNITE mentors at Hopkinton High School’s Step-Up Day in June and spend most of their orientation time with these mentors. Over the summer, UNITE mentors contact their mentee students at least twice to check in and to provide them information about freshman orientation in August. At freshman orientation, mentors walk each student in their advisory through his or her entire class schedule.

    During the year, UNITE mentors spend even more time with ninth grade students, offering guidance and support. Ninth grade advisories meet once a week, and UNITE mentors lead two of these advisory sessions per month. Bishop says that UNITE mentors must take a course led by a guidance counselor, who is the UNITE Mentoring Program coordinator; during this class, they learn how to lead ninth graders through these advisory sessions. “Sessions cover anything from the basics, like preparing for mid-year or final exams and picking courses for the following year, to social emotional well-being, like managing stress in a healthy and positive way,” says Bishop. UNITE mentors are able to present this information – from the basic to the more nuanced – to ninth graders in a relatable, influential way. Mentors also plan activities for freshman throughout the year, such as a capture the flag event in the fall and a scavenger hunt in the spring. “These events help ninth graders feel like they are part of the school,” Bishop says.

    Bishop also notes that Hopkinton High School has also made changes in the way it approaches ninth grade curriculum and academics to help ensure a successful transition for freshmen. He points to the introduction of some unleveled freshman courses, coordination among ninth-grade teachers on large assignment due dates, and maintaining the same teacher for ninth graders through the semester switch. But, he says that culturally, the UNITE Mentoring Program has had a significant influence. “How students and staff interact at our school stems from how we prepare these students to be a part of our school,” Bishop says. “There’s a lot that goes into making a school culture, but the UNITE program is a big part of the reason why students feel comfortable here, and why teachers report positive transitions.”

    Since the UNITE program’s inception in 2004, Hopkinton High School has tweaked it and improved it in many ways. Bishop says that soliciting feedback from UNITE mentors and ninth grade participants has contributed to this evolution. The results of this program, in conjunction with Hopkinton’s other work to transition students, are phenomenal. “We did a survey in the winter of last year, asking freshman how they felt they transition went,” Bishop says, “and 97.5% of students reported that their transition to high school was smooth.”

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