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Getting a jump on high school

6 tips to help students in middle grades prepare for the transition.
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    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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It’s the start of another school year, and your middle grade child is settling into classes. After all the work you’ve done to get them where they are, you may want to relax and just focus on the year’s work ahead. But the middle years are the time when parents need to start preparing their kids for high school.

Toni Damon, principal of Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School, said that this emphasis on an academic mindset should start by 6th grade. That way, Damon said, students “would have it down to a science by 7th grade, and it might be easier to maintain.”

Parents should also use the middle grades to research potential high schools, arrange school tours, review each school’s deadlines and requirements, and talk with guidance counselors about their child’s interests and goals.

With 90 District and charter high schools to consider, many with their own distinct admissions requirements and application process, the transition to high school can be challenging.

To help with the process, the Notebook offers six tips for what parents and students can do to get a jump on high school.

 

Tip #1: Establish good academic habits early.

High schools look at 7th-grade records and test scores, so the earlier you start encouraging good, responsible academic habits, the more easily your child will make the transition.

“It takes time to change habits,” said Damon, “so starting early is key.”

“I always reinforced the [academic] commitment,” said Cherese Kitchens, whose son will enter Central High School this year. Kitchens said she established a routine for her son and recommends that parents find a regimen and stick to it.

That means having a consistent time and a secure place to do homework. Kitchens advised against having too much time and distraction between the school day and when they do their homework.

When helping with homework, parents should “track what their children are doing and ask for explanations on how their child arrived at that answer,” said Edward Poznek, CEO of Maritime Academy Charter School.

Poznek also advises parents to maintain close communication with teachers in an effort to support good work habits.

Some schools offer an agenda book that parents may use as a communication tool between school and home. Teachers make notes in each student’s book daily about their progress and behavior. The student takes the book home for his parents to review and write back messages to the teacher.

“It’s a way to keep in contact, since you aren’t always able to call,” Kitchens said.

 

Tip #2: Supplement learning outside the classroom.

Students should attend a Saturday program during the school year to “extend or accelerate their reading, math, and science skills,” said Karren Dunkley, principal of Parkway Center City High School.

She also suggested that by 6th grade, students should participate in a summer program to prevent learning loss.

Free extended-school-year (ESY) services over the summer may be an option for students receiving special education.

Students should get used to reading nonfiction works that might not be their first choice of books, Dunkley added, and get comfortable with conducting research. She said students can use the neighborhood public library for these tasks.

 

Tip #3: Meet your child’s counselor.

Schedule an appointment with a school counselor by the fall of 7th grade to discuss high school requirements and deadlines. This relationship will come in handy in the 8th grade year, just like getting to know your child’s teacher.

Heather Marcus, a guidance counselor at Masterman, said she works with students to create a list of five schools they’d like to attend.

“We have experience with the high schools and the process, [so] I think our input is really important,” Marcus said. “Our ultimate goal is to get students to a high school where they will be successful.”

Kitchens worked closely with her son’s guidance counselor during the application process.

“That relationship between counselor, parent, and student – it’s like a braid. You all have to work together.”

 

Tip #4: Research potential high schools.

High school applications are due before you know it in the fall of 8th grade, so start researching schools well before that school year starts.

Joanne Beaver, principal at Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, said parents and students should visit the District’s High School Fair. Some high schools also have open houses, starting in late September, and some special admission high schools allow parents to schedule tours or “shadowing days,” Beaver said.

During the research, parents should explore their child’s interests.

“Do they love music, sports, Latin, making stuff, math?” asked Simon Hauger, principal of The Workshop School.

“Having some sense of their passions and interests will help guide their choice.”

 

Tip #5: Pay attention to scores, attendance, and behavior.

While good grades and test scores are important to admission, attendance and behavior issues are also factors.

“Discipline and suspensions are key, as I’ve seen some really good kids [get] good grades and honor roll, but if they have been suspended, they do not meet our criteria and we have to say no to them,” Damon said.

“Children [also] need to try to get the best attendance they can get, especially for a special admit or citywide schools.”

 

Tip #6: Gather recommendations.

Encourage your child to start building relationships with adults who can write letters of recommendation.

Though these are not required, they can prove useful, particularly for students who may fall short of a requirement.

“Teachers’ recommendations are good and can help, but objective analysis such as comments teachers make on report cards, PSSA scores, and Keystones are more of an objective means of evaluating a student,” Poznek said.

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