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Advice for the school 'leap years'

Eleven-year-old Talya Carness is counting on her older brother, Noah, to help her get ready for the transition to Palmetto Middle School next year.

After she gets her class schedule this summer, "I'm going to go to school with my brother and maybe one of my friends and go to find our classes."

Having her own version of middle-school MapQuest will help Talya get over at least one set of junior-high jitters: "I'm nervous about not getting to class on time."

Plenty of students, parents and even teachers view the beginning of the school year with some trepidation, but "leap years'' -- like the transition from elementary to middle school, or high school to college or work -- can be particularly anxious.

Here's what education experts have to say about getting ready for the big day.

KINDERGARTEN: THE NEW 1st GRADE

For parents who nostalgically recall a kindergarten filled with playground time, stories and art projects, know this: Most 5-year-olds today have a whole different experience.



The emphasis on accountability for academic progress "is trickling down," says Lorraine Breffni of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University. "Kindergarten is the new first grade."

But, Breffni says, "Children don't just need a strong foundation in so-called academic skills, they need social-emotional skills as well."

Though Breffni says kindergarten now emphasizes "early literacy'' -- identifying words and letters -- parents should make sure preschoolers are learning other skills: listening, sharing and taking turns, following directions and handling transitions.

Other ways parents can prepare their child for the first day of kindergarten, according to Breffni:

    • Read with your child. "Not at their child, but with their child," she stresses. ‘‘Help them find letters in their name, predict what happens next in a story, stop and ask questions and seek input from the child.''



    • Begin getting ready early. "Talk about the new school in positive ways. Know your child's temperament: A child who is slow to warm up in new situations may need more time to adjust. Go meet the new teacher if possible; drive by the school several times; network with other families in the neighborhood who will have a child in the same school. A spicy, full-of-life child might need to be reminded of what rules and expectations are.'' Parents should visit the school ahead of time'' to see how children are expected to behave.• Teach specific skills: How to open a lunchbox or button pants after using the bathroom.

• Build a relationship with the teacher as soon as possible.



STARTING MIDDLE SCHOOL

Meline Kevorkian, author of Six Secrets for Parents to Help Their Kids Achieve in School and executive director of academic review at Nova, notes "this is the time when kids go through more changes than at any other time other than birth to age 5. It's a time when kids are their own worst critics. They're also very fearful. They hear horror stories about middle school from other kids."

The best thing a parent can do for a student entering middle school is reduce the child's anxiety, Kevorkian says. "Start with the little things. Take them to tour the school or go online and look at a map. See where the bathrooms are. Teach them to use a combination lock. Go over where they are going to pick up their bus."

In addition, "get them excited about'' going to middle school, Kevorkian suggests.

‘‘Growing up has its privileges. Talk to them about all the new activities and opportunities."

At the same time, parents must "discuss consequences and how they're going to be different in middle school." That story about getting a zero for forgetting a notebook isn't just a myth, after all.

"The planner becomes key. Being organized is something kids are trained to do."

Some parents look forward to middle school as a time when they can stop "babying'' their child, but Kevorkian says "this the worst time to cut the apron strings. This doesn't mean that you do the work for them, but you have to monitor what's going on. If two weeks go by and you haven't seen a graded paper, you need to ask about it."

If a child's grades drop when she starts middle school, Kevorkian says you shouldn't be unduly alarmed. It's common. But she advises parents to "keep monitoring to see that they return to the norm, whatever that is for your child. By Thanksgiving, if they're still struggling, that's the time to go in to the school."

Students need to learn that "in middle school, your teacher doesn't know you don't understand. They have to learn how to ask for help."

STARTING HIGH SCHOOL

"They're going to have more people in their lives and less hovering," says Lou Gilman, College Assistance Program counselor at Miami Southridge Senior High. "They'll have more teachers with different personalities and different expectations."

The two most important skills for a high school student, Gilman says, are time and people management.

Learning to get along with different -- and sometimes difficult -- people is a valuable lesson, Gilman says, and parents can help teach it. "Let your kids know that you don't always have to like somebody, but you do have to be polite. Role play conversations: What can they do different next time?"

College-bound students need to hit the ground running.

"The ninth-grade year is the most important, setting the foundation," Gilman says. "Make sure you know what is expected of you for college admission: A minimum of four years of English and math, three years each of science and social science and two years of a language. Earn a good, strong GPA and then hold onto it, instead of trying to dig yourself out of a hole later. Take the opportunity to enroll in honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes."

As for extracurricular activities, they aren't just a good way to beef up a résumé for college -- they help teens learn how to juggle competing but worthy demands on time. A part-time job does the same.

The hardest lesson, however, may be for the parents to learn to let go.

"When they don't take the actions they should, you have to let them take the consequences," Gilman says. "Let them fall, but let them know you'll be there to help them and love them no matter what -- even though you're not going to fight their battles for them. The skill you want them to learn is how to pick themselves up."

BEYOND GRADUATION

While not every student is destined for college, every student should be destined for a good career, says Christine Remmen, career specialist at the Robert Morgan Educational Center in Miami-Dade.

"Young people need to do what they want to do, not what their parents want them to do or what society wants them to do," Remmen says. "I feel bad for kids sometimes because they have to make a decision so early, but it helps them not waste time and money."

With areas of specialization, including health sciences, transportation, engineering, business, performing arts, informational technology and specialty service industries, Robert Morgan graduates "come out of here with some kind of skills that they can use to put themselves through college, if they have to," Remmen says. "I have had some kids who went through the automotive program and decided they want to be engineers instead of mechanics, but they have certifications that they can use'' to make money as mechanics in the meantime.

Schools like Robert Morgan are bucking a decades-long trend, however. According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Education, as states increased academic requirements for graduation, vocational classes were the only subject area to decline in the number of courses taken, from an average of 4.4 credits in 1982 to 3.5 credits in 2004.

But Remmen sees that changing. "There's a big demand for skilled vocational students," she says. "The vocational track is coming back because there are fewer people doing them and more need for them. I can get high school students with all their certifications jobs starting at $40,000 a year in diesel mechanics. That's as much as some college graduates make."

Using the word "vocation'' in its original sense, which means "calling," Remmen says, ‘‘I tell all my students, if you can find your vocation and make it your job, it'll be a vacation for you." 


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