What Is The Culture Around Freshmen at Your School? (And Why It Matters)

What kind of reception do the freshmen get at your school?  Are they looked at with great anticipation?  Are they welcomed with open arms?  What effort do you make to help them have a smooth transition?

We’ve been looking at ninth-graders this week, but if you work at a different grade band, you can translate these concepts to the students who are entering your school for the first time just as easily.

There are four pillars in developing an effective program for students who are entering your school as the “new class,” and in this example coming to high school for the first time as ninth-graders.  Earlier this week, the focus was on the design of the freshman year, then a look at support system for ninth-graders.  The final conversation is about instruction, but before that, take a look at the culture of your school as it relates to the ninth grade.


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Below, you’ll find a framework for this examination:

  1. Climate (A Place Designed For Them)  If you want freshmen to be successful, make a commitment to design a place that works for them.  Build a climate that is conducive to learning and growing.  Many schools just roll the freshmen into high school without much intentionality.  That is one of the reasons that freshman failure is so high.  If you instead work to set a climate that makes students feel welcome, you’ll be well on the way to leading more of your freshmen to a successful year.  How they feel drives how they think; how they think determines how they act; how they act consistently over time determines their level of success.
  2. Culture (Culture of the school; freshman experience; and individual classrooms)  Is Freshman Year an initiation or an invitation?  What are the beliefs of the people at your school about ninth-graders?  As the leader, one of your tasks is to help shape the beliefs of the school. What do you want your teachers to believe about freshmen?  What do you want them to believe about the transition of ninth-graders into the school?
  3. Getting Involved in the life of the school  Students who are involved do better in school, earn credits more easily, and have better attendance and fewer behavioral incidents.  Getting involved is important, especially for students just arriving at the school.  Connections lead to confidence and confidence is the key to success.  If your school’s culture is to involve the freshmen in school-level activities, you’ll see more of your freshmen connected.
  4. Legacy work: Freshmen adopted by the upperclassmen   What if you connect your upperclassmen to your freshmen?  What about a system of mentors to welcome the freshmen?  Freshmen assimilate well to ninth-grade when they’re made to feel like they’re welcome.  Upperclassmen can be a part of the welcoming committee to bring the new freshmen into the school family.  They can be a great resource.
  5. Service  Want to bring all of your ninth-graders together?  Have a mission. Have a cause. Do something for someone.  Service is one of the very best things we have to offer at school.  It brings people together.  If it’s part of your culture, it’ll be a way to get students connected to each other and to the school.
  6. Leadership  A great way to build a positive culture in the ninth-grade is to have a focus on student leadership.  Take time to teach leadership.  If your students focus on being strong leaders, they’ll be less likely to engage in negative behaviors.  Don’t just ask for compliance; ask for excellence.  An emphasis on learning and using leadership skills is a great way to build your school.
  7. Focus on the Future  What’s the emphasis for your freshmen teachers?  Are they focus on where your students are going?  If there’s a focus on the future, we are able to put a plan in place to connect the dots from today to a point in the future.  (graduation, more school, career)  Looking back isn’t the best path to success.  It is instead to look forward.
  8. Team Building  If your ninth-grade culture is focused on working together and on collaboration, you’ll be able to bring your teachers, your students, and your school together to work on a common goal.  Much of building a successful freshman year is developing a culture of team, and then setting off to build and nurture those teams.
  9. Motivation and Incentives  Unfortunately, many high schools have a punitive culture at their schools, particularly in the ninth-grade.  These schools go over all of the rules the first day of school.  They focus on negative behaviors.  Schools that are more progressive focus on positive behaviors.  They are able to get more consistently appropriate behaviors by supporting those who do what they’re supposed to do.  Incentives can be a big part of the Freshman Experience.  They are most effective if based on short time frames.  (anything longer than two weeks can be a challenge)
  10. Teacher Collaboration  A positive culture for students is most likely preceded by a culture of collaboration on the part of the teachers.  If teacher collaboration is a core belief of the school, that same spirit will spread to the students and support them in their team building.  If teachers aren’t collaborating with each other, the culture for students is unlikely to be any different.

What kind of freshman culture does your school need in order for your ninth-graders to be successful?  What do your school’s beliefs say about freshmen?  What will you do as the leader to build and nurture an effective culture for your freshmen?

If you can get the first year at a school ‘right,’ the remainder of the years at the school go relatively easy.  If you get it wrong?  It’s a good bit harder the rest of the way through.

Get in front.  Adopt a culture for your Freshmen that leads them to success.



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