Bridge programs can ease a tricky high-school transition

When I was an incoming ninth-grader, our bare-bones orientation lasted a few hours. Adults and students crowded into our school’s auditorium, as our principal took the mic to explain to us what a big journey we were embarking upon. Various teachers and student-leaders were paraded about on stage, and we were given the privilege of wandering the halls and scoping out the building.

I was terrified to start high school, and I can say with confidence that my orientation didn’t change a thing either way. (In fact, I still got lost on my first day, walking into a homeroom of upperclassmen before realizing I was on the wrong floor and scrambling down the stairs desperate not to be late.)

Bridge over Drina River in Višegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina (photo by Julian Nitzsche)

That night in our auditorium was an attempt to disguise the fact that, for the most part, the move to high school was sink-or-swim. We were thrown in head first — and, sure, we had guidance counselors and faculty members to whom we could theoretically turn for help in the first few weeks, but we didn’t really know any of them. And we were intimidated.

Despite what a big change it is for a 14-year-old to go from middle school to high school, the transition traditionally hasn’t been given much time or thought. That’s been changing slowly, and the movement seems to be gaining steam, at least for students at risk of dropping out. Summer-bridge programs, where students spend at least a week at their new school before the academic year officially begins, are growing in popularity, as The Hechinger Report found in a collaboration with The Seattle Times. These programs try to give students a little extra time to get comfortable in the high-school setting before the year begins. Other transition approaches, like ninth-grade academies, have also gained traction.

A similar move away from the sink-or-swim scenario can be found in U.S. colleges and universities. In order to improve retention rates, faculty and administrators are now focusing on the crucial first year, offering extended orientations and strengthening support-systems.

Summer-bridge programs actually began at the college level, and only decades later trickled down to the secondary level. Perhaps more high schools will follow in higher education’s footsteps and help freshmen (even those who, statistically speaking, are likely to earn a diploma) make the transition. At the very least, it’d be a welcome move to decrease the number of red-faced freshmen madly dashing to homeroom on the first day of school.

POSTED BY ON September 8, 2010