Fox Chapel Area High School seminar seeks to ease transition for freshmen

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Teacher Lesley Cowles asked a group of 16 teens to quiet down several times this week in a classroom at Fox Chapel Area High School.

Each time, the teens obliged, though their chattiness might be addressed with some lessons they're learning in the 2013 Freshman Summer Seminar.

Offered in Fox Chapel for the second consecutive summer, the seminar is a four-day program — three hours daily — that teaches executive functioning skills, including time and materials management, organization, study strategies and goal setting, to incoming freshmen.

“The executive functioning skills that this program focuses on enhance our existing transition program and provide additional help to our incoming freshmen students to help them succeed academically,” Principal Daniel Lentz said.

High school transition programs — those meant to familiarize incoming freshmen with high school expectations and give them resources to succeed academically — are growing in popularity as school districts look for ways to prevent the academic struggles that befall many ninth-graders, said Kim Kendziora, a principal researcher at the D.C.-based American Institutes for Research, which runs the College and Career Readiness and Success Center.

Ninth grade is most often failed in high school, and a disproportionate number of students who fail ninth grade drop out, according to a 2007 study for the National High School Center, which is now the Readiness and Success Center.

“There is a need to support kids in the transition to high school because there's a very well-documented phenomenon that in ninth grade, both attendance and grades tank for most kids,” said Kendziora, who called Fox Chapel's four-day intensive workshop a relatively innovative approach.

Fox Chapel is offering the freshman seminars five times this summer at $75 each; students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches receive a discounted rate, the district said.

The school district decided to offer the seminars because several years of freshmen surveys showed that students wanted more help in time management, Lentz said.

Last summer, 85 students participated in the seminars, he said.

Fox Chapel bought the research-based curriculum for its seminars from the Rush NeuroBehavioral Center in Skokie, Ill., but Fox Chapel teachers added their ideas, Lentz said.

During the school year, the seminar lessons will be incorporated into core subjects: math, English, social studies and science, he said.

“We're just trying to make that real-world connection to the classroom,” he said.

Often, students lack skills, such as time management and note-taking, that they should know by high school because they simply were never taught them, said Georgia Bozeday, director of educational services at the Rush Center.

On Monday, Cowles conducted a skills inventory with seminar students to help them determine their strengths and weaknesses. Then, the students were divided into three groups for an assignment to complete a mock schedule with two months of activities, such as attending basketball practice, completing Spanish homework, attending a birthday party and studying for a history exam.

Student Tommy Hartle, 14, said he wasn't worried about starting high school in the fall, but there was room to grow.

“I could improve in probably note-taking and bringing my books home,” he said.

Katherine Kauma, 14, asked her mother to register her for the course “because I have bad organization skills and I feel I'd end up really messing up during school,” she said. She plans to join the orchestra, cross country and maybe a school musical during her freshman year, she said.

The most effective freshman transition programs are those incorporated into an entire school year, not just one-shot events, academic experts said.

“Those kinds of programs have shown their worth. The basic job of education is really to get a student excited about being educated,” said Mark Smith, senior policy analyst for higher education at the National Education Association

Fox Chapel's freshmen seminar is a complement to its existing freshman transition program, which starts in the second semester of students' eighth-grade year, Lentz said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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