The adults who study and work in high schools generally agree that freshmen face a difficult transition from the small world of elementary school.
To get the students’ view, Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams periodically tagged along with two students who made that transition this year, Crystal Daniels from Fermi Elementary School to Hyde Park Academy and Karlton Adams from McCosh Elementary School to Dunbar Vocational.
Both elementary schools are part of the Starting on the Right Foot, a cooperative program with Hyde Park High School that aims to prepare upper-grade youngsters for high school. As a result, both Crystal and Karlton had some experience with multiple classes and multiple teachers and with working independently.
Williams first met the students in June and then spent time with them, either by phone or in person, once a month from September through January. Crystal’s and Karlton’s stories are indeed just that, individual experiences, and are not intended to represent the collective experience of students entering these two schools.
First day unsettling for Crystal Daniels
Crystal Daniels’ introduction to Hyde Park Career Academy was decidedly unsettling.
It was June 24, the first day of the school system’s hastily arranged Summer Bridge Program for 8th-graders with low test scores. By 8 a.m., Crystal and some 65 other students had gathered in Hyde Park’s spacious library. For almost an hour, they listened to orders.
“OK, this is the last call for bus cards. Two dollars,” one teacher shouts, holding up money. “I’m going to go downstairs now; otherwise, you’ll have to get them yourself.”
Another teacher stands and lays down the law: “If you are absent tomorrow, you repeat 8th grade. You go back to your school. This summer you will get a report card. Your parents will have to pick it up. It will have your days absent on there. We have to send daily attendance in to Pershing Road. If you don’t come, you fail. After the program, you will be tested, if you don’t pass, you go back to 8th grade. You must score higher than 6.8 in reading and math to graduate. The pressure is on you. Also attitude and behavior are very important; you can be expelled. At 8:15 a.m., no student is admitted. The security guard will not let you in. After today, you don’t want to be late. Do you understand?”
Crystal nervously looks around the room to gauge the reaction. No one says a word.
Next, students are divided into groups based on whether they had failed the math test, reading test or both. Crystal had failed both. Within minutes, she and 14 other students are deposited in a third-floor classroom. Ten minutes pass, and a teacher sticks her head in, asking, “Whose classroom is this?”
“We don’t know,” the class responds in unison.
Finally, two and a half hours after arriving at Hyde Park, Crystal’s group gets a teacher who begins two days of testing.
When Bridge ends six weeks later, Crystal appears anxious. But, as it turned out, the worst was over. Crystal passed the Bridge Program’s exit exam, and, on the first day of real high school, was grateful for having spent time in the building.
“I was a little afraid, because I went by myself instead of with my sister, but I knew my way around,” she reports, several days later. “I found my division class on the board on the first floor, and when I needed help finding a class, I got help from a guard.”
But Crystal wasn’t prepared for being with nearly 1,900 students. Asked if she’d seen a difference between elementary school and high school, she says, “There are a lot more kids for one thing, and there have been some fights in the hallways.”
Crystal’s elementary school, Fermi, had only 458 students, and even then, Crystal kept to herself. “She’s a sweet kid, but very quiet,” says Fermi teacher Alma Frierson. “She would never respond to questions unless you asked her. She would never raise her hand. And I told all my kids, ‘You will not get coddled in high school the way you do here.'”
But, Frierson adds, Crystal always worked hard and did her best.
With one exception, Crystal’s best proved to be good enough for her first quarter at Hyde Park, and the school itself stepped in to help with the exception, English. In the first marking period, Crystal got C’s in algebra, general science, geography, gym and music. But she got a P in English, which meant that her work was unacceptable.
Under Hyde Park’s freshman grading policy, students who are doing D or F work are given extra time and help to bring their grades up to at least a C.
For Crystal, that meant an extra period at the end of the day with her English teacher, who helped her with areas she hadn’t grasped.
“Instead of thinking you can get away with D’s as passing, the extra class you have to take to make up your work forces you to get better grades,” Crystal explains, appreciation evident in her voice.
By December, Crystal’s progress report shows that she is doing better, with A-level work in English. “I plan to keep working hard,” she says.
However, while she was faring better in English, her math work was faltering. “I wish I had asked more questions when I was at Fermi,” she says shyly.
Thinking back on her years at Fermi and her first months at Hyde Park, Crystal ends up pointing out similarities, perhaps reflecting the cooperative program the high school has with its feeder elementary schools: Fermi taught study skills such as note taking, and several of her freshman-year teachers do, too; study skills also are taught in her division class. Fermi’s teachers were caring, she says, and so are her teachers at Hyde Park.
“These teachers will help you,” says Crystal, “but they also expect you to complete work that day; and explain things to you as a class, not individually. But if you ask for help, they’ll help you.”
She particularly likes her math teacher because he is thorough in going over problems that students don’t understand, allows students to rework assignments and will work with them individually.
For its “freshman academy” program, Hyde Park selects teachers who are comfortable working with 14-year olds, the average age of incoming freshmen, and who understand their social and emotional needs.
In 7th grade, Crystal set the goal of becoming a lawyer. But now, she’s not so sure. One of her teachers told her that her writing was very creative, so she now is considering becoming a writer.
“I plan to keep going to school,” she reported in January. “Even if I don’t understand the work, I’ll try to do it. For me to drop out, I would have to fail everything, every semester, every year— and that’s not going to happen.”
Karlton Adams gets 1st F in years
The last time A-student Karlton Adams failed a subject was in 4th grade when he didn’t do a project for the science fair. But it happened again his first quarter at Dunbar Vocational High School.
When his principal at McCosh Elementary discovered he had failed English, she was shocked. “Karlton failing? Oh, my,” said Principal Barbara Easton-Watkins.
Karlton blames his F mainly on a series of mishaps: “I think I failed because my book, ‘The Learning Tree,’ was in my bookbag when it was stolen, and the library didn’t have it. Also, my teacher got sick and was gone for three weeks, and when she came back, we had to do like Chapters 12 through 18 and turn it in, and I didn’t have the book.”
But he also admits that he missed a lot of English classes, which start at 8 a.m.
“I’m used to walking to McCosh in five minutes before 9 a.m.,” he explains. “Now I have to take a 40-minute or longer bus ride and have to be at school at 8 a.m. And even if you’re 10 minutes late, you have to stay in the hall until the next period.
“I probably missed about 12 English classes.”
Last June, Karlton was confident he could handle high school. “I talked to my brother,” he said then. “I expect a lot more kids, and I expect to be teased.”
Karlton is used to teasing. “All the kids call me Doogie Howser and nerd,” he said with a shrug, referring to the star of a television sitcom about a teenage genius doctor. “My big brother always teases me. I win a lot of math awards.”
Karlton knew that he’d have to work more in high school, too, but that didn’t faze him either. “I’m doing fine in school,” he said.
Easton-Watkins was confident, too. “Book smart and street smart … that’s Karlton,” is how Easton-Watkins described him in June. “Kids don’t bother him about being smart. He knows how to maneuver his way around.”
A well-rounded student, Karlton also participated in extracurricular activities, including football and basketball.
On his first day at Dunbar, Karlton’s brother shepherded him to division and three other classes, then dumped him. “He just left me,” Karlton reports. “I had to find the rest of my classes by myself.”
By October, Karlton was feeling the difference of high school: “If you didn’t do your work in elementary school, you got hollered at. If you don’t do the work in high school, they say nothing. It’s like they don’t care. They just collect the homework. In high school, you have to speak up, or no one will help you.”
The only exception, Karlton says, is his history teacher, who chastises the class if students do not perform well.
Karlton’s schedule includes English, gym, early world history, algebra, a double period of biology, commercial drafting and shop—a typical class load for a freshman in a vocational school, according to Principal Floyd Banks.
Karlton says he loves math—”pre-algebra helped me a lot at McCosh”—but he doesn’t care for “all that reading” in English, nor for his drafting class.
“In English, we’re reading ‘The Learning Tree,’ and in drafting all we do is draw lines and different shapes. My drafting teacher just tells us to draw. I can do his job,” he says.
Karlton also complains of frequent teacher absences, saying that in one case, a class went without a teacher for three days. (Banks says the absences were due to illness and that it was “hard to envision” a class going uncovered. “We use people in the building to be in the classrooms,” the principal says.)
Another concern for Karlton: Frequent fights in the lunchroom. (Banks says that while three gangs have a presence at Dunbar, “the fighting that goes on here is no more than anywhere else. We’re safer than a lot of schools, like Whitney Young.”)
In the first semester, theft struck Karlton twice. The first time, his bookbag—containing his gym uniform, math book, biology portfolio and English book—was stolen in the lunchroom when he left it at a table to get a can of soda. Then his drafting kit was stolen out of a locker in the drafting class.
“The kit is around $21, and I was told I just had to replace it and that there was nothing the school could do,” he says. “Same with the bookbag.”
In November, a week before report cards come out, Karlton reports that his grades are not where he wanted them. “At McCosh, I got A’s and B’s, here I’m getting B’s and C’s,” he says, disappointed.
By December, though, Karlton says he is knuckling down because he knows he can do better. He reports getting to English class on time. The class is reading “Romeo and Juliet,” and while he didn’t want to read it at first, he has come to think it is “kind of good.”
Karlton hopes to get a wrestling scholarship to get into college and then study accounting. He chose Dunbar because his wrestling coach was there.
“I’ve known him since I was 5,” he says. “He was my coach at McCosh and a field house director, but his position was closed and he went to Dunbar.”
But in October, Karlton reports that his coach was shot in a botched robbery and has left the school. In January, Karlton still has not signed up for wrestling, though he has been invited to.
But he still plans to become an accountant. “Being an accountant hasn’t changed,” he says. “But if I had known my wrestling coach wasn’t going to be here, I probably would have gone to Whitney Young.”