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High Tech High School

Grades 9-12 | North Bergen, NJ

Freshman Orientation: A Year of Gentle Transition

In an ungraded weekly seminar throughout their freshman year, incoming students at High Tech High School learn about each other, themselves, and their academic community.
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Freshman Orientation: A Year of Gentle Transition (Transcript)

Joseph: At High Tech High School we have all races, ethnicities, sexual preferences in the building. Everybody is a family. That's the beauty of being in High Tech.

Louis: There's always a period of adjustment when kids change schools, but especially when they go from a grammar school into high school. Many of the kids are coming here without knowing other students, or at least not many other students as compared to if they remained in their neighborhood schools.

Joseph: To get in tune to the culture of the school, we have a school orientation class in freshman year.

Max: Freshman orientation was a bit scary actually, because I didn't know what to expect. I went to a small, tiny little charter school. It was a big jump, so there was like a lot more people here. I got sort of a glimpse of how everyone was inviting and everyone was sort of wanting to help me out.

Louis: I meet all of the freshmen once a week throughout the entire year. One of the things that I try to stress with our students is that we are a school of compassion. A lot of what I do in the guidance class is based upon that, enabling the kids to see different points of view, so people are accustomed to the diversity we have here. I start out the year basically with an exercise with them called the hot seat. On a voluntary basis, a kid will sit in the middle of a circle and the other students will have a chance to ask him anything they want. No questions that embarrass a person or make them feel uncomfortable, and the person in the middle has the right to not answer anything. I try to talk to them about their individual responsibility, about everything from teen pregnancy and STDs to the bullying and the racism. I spend a good deal of time dealing with how does peer pressure affect us? Some of the kids are more shy, they don't talk as much in the beginning. So as I get to know them over the whole year, I get a chance to find out what the difficulties are they may have.

Chazz: I was an eighth grader, a short little chubby kid came in and didn't know what to expect. Everything was so new, people were just much bigger than me. It was overwhelming, and then once I came in my freshman year, it was really nice just having that, I guess, backbone of the community in the classroom.

Louis: I had to listen to it several other times and it's not an easy story.

We talk about racism that has existed in our society, does racism still exist, where do we see it?

Why is he so passionate about this, yes?

Student: He has to say something and stand up for his culture and his race because he feels that nothing is being said about it.

Louis: I do some exercises, break the kids down into small groups. They discuss, come up with their solution and then we return to a large group, get an idea what other people think and where their opinions are coming from.

Student: It wasn't equal for everyone to have their own opinion, so I think it's kind of like a wound that was opened and never closed.

Louis: In our class, they might find out some things they might not talk about in other classes. I try to keep it more informal, because it's not a graded class. It's just me and them and, you know, we're talking.

Do you think that's true?

Student: I think it depends on what person you're saying it to...

Louis: I think it gives them a chance at least to get to know me better. They know where I am and they know they can come and see me any time.

Joseph: The students get more involved in the culture of the school and I think as the students progress from freshman, to sophomore, junior, the senior year, they train the incoming students to make sure that that culture stays in place.

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  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
  • Field Producer: Sarita Khurana
  • Managing Producer/Editor: Julie Konop
  • Editor: Amanda Whittenberger
  • Production Coordinator: Julia Lee
  • Camera: Adams Wood
  • Sound: Rod Murphy
  • Graphics: Cait Camarata, Doug Keely


Freshman Orientation: A Year of Gentle Transition

The Freshman Orientation seminar is a year-long class for all ninth grade students. They meet with the guidance counselor in small groups once a week. This year-long program is unique as an ongoing opportunity to help students transition from middle school to high school, and as a way to build a strong, supportive community at High Tech High School.

How It's Done

All ninth grade students are enrolled in the year-long Freshman Orientation course, which meets once a week for a 40-minute class period. Each class is comprised of 10-12 students, and is run by Lou Dodge, the school's guidance counselor. Students stay in the same class throughout the year, and work closely with their peers and with Dodge as they navigate their way through their first year of high school. There are approximately 12 Freshman Orientation groups meeting every week.

Helping Students Transition from Middle to High School

There's always a period of adjustment when kids change schools, but the changes can be especially challenging between middle school and high school. Students entering High Tech High School come from so many different neighborhoods that their ties to their new classmates are limited. Freshman Orientation class helps students get to know one another, and starts to build a community. It's also a safe and supportive space where students can talk about their hopes and fears as they enter this new era of their lives.

Core Curriculum

Much of the core curriculum deals with issues of diversity and creating a culture where students are encouraged to see different points of view and lifestyles. Because the school is diverse in every respect, it focuses on making the environment one of acceptance, tolerance, and compassion. The Freshman Orientation curriculum combines hands-on activities and discussions that engage students in the topic at hand.

Week one is usually spent on establishing an environment of trust and safety within the group. Lou Dodge likes to start with some introductory activities, where students get to know one another by sharing basic things like where they are from, who they are, and why they chose to attend High Tech.

As the weeks progress, Dodge will introduce various topics and activities that explore issues of race, sexuality, gender; or academic issues, such as how to handle the new levels of responsibility and work at high school; or even how to think about what to major in and how to define their future academic and personal goals.

The activities and discussion in Freshman Orientation are never graded. The idea of this seminar is to create a safe space where students can talk freely with one another as they explore their new environment and community. Ultimately, one of the great benefits of the class is that students build strong relationships with their peers, and also embrace and embody the school culture of tolerance, respect, and support for one another.


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