Freshmen Academy creates success, unity within school

“This is not just a program, this is not something temporary. It is going to have to be a total mindset starting with the 9th grade.”

Assistant principals Chantel Hluchan and Justin Smith, along with counselors Tiffany Giffen and Sondra Junek, are the core administrative staff for the Freshman Success Academy – a new program placed at both Bryan High and Rudder to promote academic and disciplinary success within the freshman class.

“[Freshman Academy is] the backbone of our freshman center,” Giffen said. “It’s comprised of team teaching – we have teachers that are teamed into small groups so that they each have, mostly, the same students – and we have two principals and two counselors that are dedicated to just freshman.”

The teaching teams consist of four core teachers that have the same 100-150 freshman that they teach throughout the day. Having teams creates an avenue for communication and builds unity among the students and teachers.

“These teachers all have a teaming period, so they meet and have their agenda and they are able to communicate about their group of kids,” Junek said. “The teachers are able to talk about the kids, what their needs are, what’s going on, and how can we help them be successful – that’s the powerful thing about being on a team.”

Freshman English teacher and freshman class council sponsor Annette Kirk has first hand experience with this teaming experience and can already see the benefits of having the Academy in place.

“[The Academy] has been a positive experience because the teachers are able to work together to help students,” Kirk said. “Before, I felt like I was working by myself and there were too many students and other teachers to partner with. But now, with the students having the same team of teachers, it’s much easier to partner with their teachers to work for the good of the student.”

Another change the freshman are encountering is in the diploma requirements to graduate. Now, students graduating under the changes in House Bill 5 (class of 2018 and beyond) need to not only meet core – English, history, math, and science credits – requirements but, now, need to meet an endorsement requirement. The endorsements are a pathway for students to take advanced classes in either STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), Business & Industry, Arts & Humanities, Public Service, or Multidisciplinary areas.

“The key with an endorsement is that students have to have advanced classes in one area,” Giffen said. “In the past, students would take hospitality and photography and they would dabble into a lot of different things. Now, we want them to pick an area that they really like and get a little deeper into it. Going into advanced classes makes it different than just getting an overview, we want them to get more specific.”

Transitioning from middle school to high school is a rough change academically due to the increase in student responsibility and expectations. Junek, a former SFA middle school teacher, knows how hard this transition can be for students and believes this Academy will facilitate with the change.

“Getting a foundation in 9th grade is crucial because it’s that hard transition – a lot of [students] fail out and stop coming to school,” Junek said. “Getting that transition down and having a solid foundation where they feel successful and where they can continue improving is a major component of the Academy.”

Another aspect of the Academy is giving the freshman a stronger sense of accountability with their teachers. Hluchan says that this will give the students an emphasis on why this extra push is important to succeed in high school.

“We are holding them accountable – we are all held accountable in life – and we’re going about it a different way,” Hluchan said. “[Students saying] ‘I’m not gonna do my work’ is not an option. They are held to the fire and they are responsible for their work, assignments, and behavior. We’ve already had team meetings where we’ve pulled in students and discussed their behavior and it makes an impression. It shows them that we do really talk about them and care for them and how what happens in one class translates to another.”

While acquiring new knowledge in high school, freshman are also getting to experience a more serious educational environment. Freshman Chase Taylor says he looks forward to his years in high school and wants them to be a memorable learning experience.

“I’m excited to try something new,” Taylor said. “I’m excited that it’s more serious than middle school [and] I like that I can actually learn something that’s in-depth.”

Although the Academy started this year, and the administrative team agrees that there are kinks that need to be worked out. Because of this, they are looking at the success rate of other campuses comparative to Bryan High and what they expect to come out of this Academy.

“We’re collecting data now to see how this teaming and Academy is affecting the students and what kind of results we’re going to see,” Junek said. “Our goals are to see that they’re succeeding.”