J essica Bruce was nervous as she approached the four metal and glass doors that serve as the main entrance to Whitehall high school. Behind those doors were an unfamiliar world, high school, where students were bigger and classes harder.
“I thought I would get trampled by the big guys,” Bruce, a sixth-grader at Whitehall elementary school, said. “I was scared to walk in here, but I’m not scared now.”
That’s because Bruce participated in a shadowing program that is designed to familiarize sixth-grade students with the high school experience and ease the transition from the elementary school.
Topher Montville, the junior high guidance counselor, said students often feel nervous about making the switch to a new building, a new routine and a school of unfamiliar faces.
“The program helps bring down the students’ anxiety level about transitioning to a new school,” he said. “It introduces students to teachers, the (high school) environment, and the schedule.”
Every sixth-grader spends a full day at the school “shadowing” a seventh-grader. They arrive at school at the same time, attend all the same classes as their seventh-grade peers, eat lunch together, participate in gym (if the mentor has gym that day) and meet some of their future teachers.
“We try to keep it as routine as it will be next year,” Montville said. “The goal is to attach normalcy to the experience and lessen that anxiety they may feel next year.”
He said one of the biggest transitions for the students is a new schedule that has them changing classrooms every 40 minutes.
“I was worried about classes,” sixth-grader Constance Castro said.
“I didn’t know if I could get to classes quickly,” Bruce added, pointing out that there are only three minutes between periods.
Students also worry about using a locker and the perception that the course work is going to be much more difficult.
“I was scared last year, but it went away after I went to some of the classes,” said seventh-grader Victoria Davis, who served as Bruce’s guide. “It’s like any step up from a grade. You think it’s going to be hard, but it’s not.”
Staff at the elementary and high schools work collaboratively to pair sixth-graders with seventh-graders of similar academic interests. For instance, if there is a student who will take band next year, an effort is made to pair that student with a seventh-grader in band.
The program can also work in reverse. Montville said some students may attend a class they had no intention of taking but end up developing an interest in the subject.
“They get that exposure and that taste in their mouth and get to decide if they want to do it,” he said.
Besides getting a taste of the high school experience, the program also teaches students lessons that will serve them well in the future.
The kids are responsible for all the work they miss while they are at the high school. “I didn’t do my homework because I wasn’t here,” doesn’t cut it.
“It’s a nice teachable moment. Once they’re in high school, it’s a different ball game. They learn there is more responsibility,” Montville said.
The program is also beneficial for the mentors, who are given the opportunity to be leaders, and parents, who Montville says experience anxiety over the transition as well.
“It makes it a lot easier. I know some of my teachers now and where my classes are,” Bruce said.