As a senior preparing to go off to college in the fall, I look back on my entry into high school and remember one thing in particular: the shock of the new. Talking to other seniors, in my Boston school and elsewhere, I hear the same, very old, story: "If only I had known then what I know now."
No matter how well meaning and dedicated our teachers, principals, and guidance counselors are, we are rarely prepared for what awaits us when we begin our high school years. This seems to be true for all kids, but it may be a particular problem for those who hope to continue their education after high school.
Although some pitfalls and mistakes are inevitable and even necessary to the learning process, others can be avoided, especially when such fits and starts cause students to lose crucial time adjusting to new realities and end up lacking the tools and preparation they'll need for success.
I have found that many students are not only deficient in the skills and understanding they need to succeed in an institution of secondary education but are also oblivious to these needs. What makes this observation all the more depressing is that when many students do become aware of what they don't know, it's almost too late.
When asked what year they had to work the hardest in high school, many current college students cite their junior year, because that's the year colleges pay the most attention to when determining admissions. But just think how much harder the student who has not been preparing for college-level studies must work than the student who has been preparing since ninth grade. As I look into the faces of my classmates, I see a montage of complacency, agony, and indifference toward the future, and I speculate on what could have been done to make their high school experience more rewarding and truly preparatory.
When I ask my peers this question, the answer seems almost too obvious: We need a program that introduces students to the demands of high school life and education before they face these challenges. Many of us find it quite unreasonable to have to cram for mandated standardized tests and adapt to a faster-moving environment at the same time. A process should be in place that helps students develop skills over time while allowing them to avoid confusion over the more strict demands of ninth grade. And such a program should be not only for kids in college prep courses but for all students (who, after all, also have to take those standardized tests).
Given the many apprehensions and uncertainties inherent to being a freshman in high school, what better place to start the transition than in middle school? My suggestion is a five-year pilot program that allows students in their last year of middle school to learn what high school will require of them, and to hear about their brave new world from students who have already gone through it. Such a program would allow them to successfully develop their intellectual skills while more easily adapting to high school life.
I envision an orientation program, run by teachers and guidance counselors but staffed by high school seniors, where students would be given guidance from the eighth grade on. When they have a better understanding of what is expected of them at an early phase, their fears are alleviated and they are better prepared to make informed decisions about the high school courses and activities that will effectively shape their future. In addition, students about to enter high school who have the support of a larger community should be more likely to do well on standardized tests, because this program would give them the incentive to prepare well in advance of the tests.
Life is full of setbacks that mainly work to put our dreams further from reach. But confusion and incomprehension about one's education shouldn't be one of these roadblocks. Here is a problem for students that can best be solved by students. Let us be the ones to break the fall of future generations.
Bernice Fedestin is a senior at Boston's Brighton High School; she plans to attend Brown University this fall. Read more about her by visiting "Bernice Fedestin: Student and Documentarian" (Edutopia 2004).