Moving up to the next school level — from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school — can cause even well-adjusted, high-performing kids to feel a little panicky.
What if I can’t find my classroom? Will I make any friends? What if the classes are too hard?
Add a new school building filled with an unknown student population to a youth whose brain and body are rapidly changing, and you can sum it up in one word: anxiety. Educators say it’s natural for students making the big leap to feel anxious about who they’ll sit with in the cafeteria, or what grades will come home on the report card. For many students, a jump up to the next school level often comes with social and academic challenges.
Simon Sangary, 17, who will be a senior at Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami Lakes, felt both geographically and academically out of his element when he first started high school. It took him 20 minutes to find his first class, and at first, not much improved.
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“The first two weeks were horrible. I was getting so much work, I was getting lost. I was like, ‘I have no idea how I’m going to get through this,’ ” Sangary said. He found that academics in high school required a lot more time and effort, compared to middle school, which he described as “a breeze.”
Although Sangary’s grades didn’t suffer in the transition, many students’ do. A Harvard study of Florida public schools from 2000 to 2009 found that many students moving from grade five into middle school experienced a drop in math and language arts scores. Although some bounced back, others struggled into the high school years.
Those entering high school also face a pivotal year. Academic pressure and high-stakes testing increases, and even high-achieving students sometimes see a dip in grades as they adjust to a new setting. Statistics compiled by the American Institutes for Research’s National High School Center show that more students fail ninth grade than any other year in high school, and most high school dropouts fail at least 25 percent of their ninth-grade courses. Minority students and those at poverty level are more at risk.
Besides the headache of keeping grades up, kids also are struggling with budding independence.
“In middle school, kids are getting used to managing feelings, emotions and relationships. In high school, they’re dealing with a multitude of demands on their time, and learning how to prioritize and organize,” said Carlos Viera, chairman for secondary student services for the Miami-Dade County school district.
The biggest challenge in entering middle school is fear of the unknown, said Christi Moss, assistant principal at Gulfstream Middle School in Hallandale Beach.
“Sixth grade is huge because they have to take on such a level of independence — so many different teachers, and so many different classes,” she said.
The transition from a self-contained elementary school classroom to switching classes in middle school can be difficult, said James Griffin, principal at Lauderdale Lakes Middle School.
“You’re going from a more nurturing environment to a middle school where a teacher has from 110 to 132 kids a day,” he said. “There’s not as much of a connection, which impacts socialization and the ability to learn.”
Academically, some sixth-graders see a downturn in grades in the first quarter. At Gulfstream Middle, Moss said about 10 to 15 percent see a dip. “We find that it has to do more with a student’s ability to organize themselves and get things turned in to multiple teachers,” she said.
The grade drop is often temporary, leveling off in the seventh-grade year, she said.
Another issue is lack of motivation. “When I was a kid, a low grade was a consequence, and my parents would have been all over me about a grade less than I was capable of,” Moss said. “But in middle school, the kids don’t seem to be very motivated.” That thinking often reverses in high school, when kids know grades “matter now,” she said.
Gulfstream Middle ties academic eligibility into clubs like robotics or marching band, to give students incentive to succeed. “We try to help instill that sense of responsibility in kids that they don’t seem to find,” Moss said.
Socially, kids learning how to build relationships often struggle because they are interacting with a much larger student population, Griffin said.
Moss said they expect kids of this age to have problems adjusting. “We teach them how to make good choices, how to maintain friendships and how to let friendships go,” she said. “We try to teach them to deal with things in middle school as life lessons.”
In many cases, parents are more worried about the transition than kids, said Marc Charpentier, principal at Sunset Lakes Elementary School in Miramar. “Parents should visit the middle school and get a feel for the environment,” he said. “Visit the school’s website, and network with other parents who are already there.”
If your child hasn’t visited the school, make sure they attend orientation, so they can find their way around campus, and know where their first class is, Moss said. Though they’re on the cusp of independence, they still need guidance.
“That’s something I’ve struggled with, to get middle school teachers to understand that they’re still kids, even if they’re in middle school,” Griffin said. “If you provide nurturing and build that relationship with the children, you will help them succeed.”
Entering high school also brings challenges in and out of the classroom.
“On one side of the coin, you have socialization. On the other side of the pendulum, you have academic rigor and high-stakes testing. When you combine the two, it makes for a difficult transition,” said John LaCasse, principal at Nova High School in Davie.
The academic rigor in high school is far more intense in high school, and End of Course (EOC) exams bring added pressure, he said. “Before you enter ninth grade, you really don’t have to pass a test to graduate from high school,” LaCasse said.
Now students who enter their freshman year who are already deficient in areas like math are faced with the challenge of passing an EOC exam, he said.
The academic competition also starts on day one, with a focus on college, college credits and SATs. “So there’s a lot of pressure to excel early,” said Kevin Molina, dean of students at Archbishop McCarthy High in Southwest Ranches.
“They have to be more independent, and that takes some adjustment. Now they’re a small fish in a big pond,” Molina said. They want to be independent of their parents, but they’re not. They’re in a gray area, he said
“This is also the point where they have to make a decision about where they’re heading career wise,” said Viera of Miami-Dade Public Schools.
Schools use tools like ConnectEDU to help students gauge interests and select a field of study. Most kids are not zeroed in on a career path, “but I do think it’s important to keep asking them, to help shape that,” Viera said.
One transitioning challenge that shouldn’t be overlooked is that most students are moving from a small middle school to a much large high school, said Molina of Archbishop McCarthy, which has 1,600 students. “Just the initial shock, when everybody is in the building that first day changing classes, that’s when reality hits you,” he said.
In the first couple of weeks, freshmen typically have trouble making it from class to class on time. Academically, some also get lost.
Molina said about 25 percent of his ninth-graders experience a slight dip in grades, typically in the second quarter.
“Maybe they were a straight-A student in middle school. Then they get a B. The question is ‘Why is that?’ They’re in a different setting. They’re in a bigger setting. They’re trying to become independent,” he said.
High achievers typically struggle with it the most. “They’re not used to it. They’ve been straight-A students all their life, then all of a sudden, they have a B on their report card,” Molina said.
For most, by the third quarter, grades have leveled off or picked up again, he said.
But for kids who struggled in eighth grade, the ninth-grade year is make or break, LaCasse said. “We literally have kids struggling to pass two, three or four classes. If you come out of ninth grade with a 1.0 GPA, your self-esteem has taken a hit and you’re setting yourself up where it’s nearly impossible” to graduate.
“That’s where the challenge is, do you take away electives that a student may excel in and get them a job down the line — drafting, ceramics, music — because you know that child needs to pass an EOC in math or science to graduate?” LaCasse said.
Socially, you may see ninth-graders become a little intimidated about being around so many students and sharing classes with upperclassmen, Molina said.
William “Will” Kroener of Cooper City, an incoming freshman at Archbishop McCarthy, was able to ease his social transition from Pioneer Middle School in Cooper City by taking summer classes, which helped him learn his way around campus and make some friends. He got that tip from his older brother, Eric, a McCarthy junior, who only knew five kids at the school when he started his freshman year.
“My main concern when I started was making friends,” Eric said.
Now active in swimming, track, rugby and French Club, Eric said he made friends quickly because he got involved. “I think that’s something really important for freshmen, to join a sport or a club to meet people with the same interests.”
Parents should let kids know that it’s normal to be afraid and anxious, and talk about their own experiences, Molina said.
“Kids should be patient. An adjustment doesn’t happen in one day. Be organized, with a mental checklist of what you need to do each day before you get to school,” he said. “Be open to new ideas and to change. It’s very easy for students to come here and stick to who they know. That’s OK, but you want to open yourself up to new ideas and new friends. You don’t want to hold yourself back.”
Sangary echoed the sentiment, saying that his top piece of advice was to relax and have fun.
“Try to be open minded,’’ he said. “You have to be open-minded.”
Miami Herald Writer Emma Court contributed to this story.