When one of Dawn McMahon’s ninth-grade biology students at Washington-Lee High School had difficulties with a math assignment, she was aware of the problem even before the student entered her classroom later that day.
McMahon pulled the student aside to discuss these difficulties and also explained that the student would have more success in biology.
This constant communication between teachers was what Washington-Lee administrators were hoping for when they implemented their new Freshman Connection program this year, which divides ninth-graders into four distinct “learning communities” where each group of students shares the same instructors for core curriculum classes.
“We’re collaborating with each other much more than in the past and working to solve students’ problems,” said McMahon, after her weekly meeting with the three other teachers in her learning community and a school counselor. “The students know we are talking with each other and that we are keeping on top of things.”
The program was implemented to ease the thorny transition from middle school to high school and provide greater attention to students’ individual needs. By identifying disciplinary problems and deficient work habits before they escalate, Washington-Lee believes it can bolster students’ self-confidence, increase test scores and expand the number of students in advanced courses, school officials said.
Washington-Lee’s 388 freshmen are divided randomly, without regard to skill-level or family background, into one of four groups, which vary in size from 62 to 93 students. All students in a learning community will have the same teacher for English, math, science and social studies classes. For electives, such as arts and foreign language courses, students will be integrated with freshmen from the other communities as well as upper-classmen.
“The students feel far more comfortable and are better acclimated,” said Colin Brown, Washington-Lee’s assistant principal. “The parents have had nothing but positive comments on the adjustment.”
THE PROGRESSION FROM MIDDLE SCHOOL, where eighth-graders rule the roost and every one of a student’s classrooms tend to be on a single corridor, to high school can be a trying one, and some students feel uneasy among a large student body and new building.
“In middle school there is a net of protection,” said Brown. “With [the Freshman Connection program] we want to limit the initial trepidation students might have and want our school to be welcoming.”
While many students thrive in the less constraining environment, others struggle with the more rigorous classes or push the boundaries of their new-found freedoms and break school rules.
The program is a way for the school to keep a closer focus on students, while still letting them revel in their new autonomy.
“I like how the teachers are so focused on you and are so helpful,” said Will Farley, who attended Gunston Middle School last year.
Under the old system, two teachers would not have a clear way of knowing if they had a common pupil. Because teachers now meet regularly with their learning community colleagues, they are better able to identify if a student is having a behavioral or scholastic problem and can talk to the student or notify the parents.
“Last year I never would have known what was going on in a math class but now I know a student’s class schedule and whether they are coming late to school,” said Claire Moir, who teaches freshman world history.
Better coordination between teachers means they are less likely to give major tests on the same day and allows them to partner on activities. For a science fair the English instructor can help the students compose their projects and a math teacher can explain how to calculate data, Brown said.
THE FRESHMAN CONNECTION program has enabled Washington-Lee to drastically reduce its average class size, from 22.5 students to 17.5, allowing teachers to spend more time working with each student.
Two counselors are assigned to support the freshman learning communities and help ensure the switch to high school is a smooth one. Since the counselors meet weekly with the teachers, they are better equipped to work with parents to address problems arising both in and out of the classroom.
“We’re more proactive this year and more aware of the issues the kids are facing,” said counselor Jessica Baith.
By having a group of students taking a majority of their classes together, the school is hoping to build strong relationships among teenagers who come from various middle schools. The first weeks of the school year were difficult for Naomi Shagam because most of her friends from middle school were placed in Yorktown High School. Attending classes with the same contingent of students has helped her make new friends quickly, she said.
But Shagam often feels confined by the Freshman Connection program and views it as an extension of the coddling nature of middle school.
“It’s beneficial but at some point we have to make a real transition,” Shagam said. “We should be making that transition now.”
Other freshman interviewed voiced similar complaints that the program too closely resembles the middle school environment they thought they left behind.
They are unaware of how much stronger the relationships they are forming with their teachers are compared to those of their predecessors, Brown said. One teacher told Brown that he already knows his students better at this juncture in the year than he did in the spring last year.
“We’re seeing a growing camaraderie in an individual community among students and students, students and teachers and teachers and teachers,” Brown said.