As nine Rockford Freshman Center students munched on tacos she provided, Assistant Principal Kelly Amshey threw them an open-ended question.
“How are we doing to prepare your class to move over to the 10-12 building next year?” Amshey asked the group gathered in a conference room. “How do you feel about your experience so far?”
Pretty good, most of them agreed. Although course work can be tough, teachers are helping them make the crucial transition from their middle schools to Rockford High School, students said.
“The classes are challenging, but it’s nice to know you can handle the challenges after you overcome them,” Morgan Bates said.
Helping students adjust to the challenge of high school, and easing the transition from late childhood to young adulthood, are central aims of freshman centers. It’s a relatively rare grade grouping, with only Rockford and Kentwood having free-standing ninth-grade buildings in the Kent ISD (Lowell has a Freshman Center located in a wing of the main high school). But staff and students say they’re helpful to students at a crucial time of their lives.
“Kids at this age want to make their own decisions, push away from their parents, and they are really starting to develop their personalities,” said Michelle Siderman, principal of the East Kentwood Freshman Campus. “At the same time, their skill sets are still childlike. That makes a unique student. We become a bridge between ‘I’m still a kid but I want to be an adult.'”
Freshmen come from middle schools full of course choices to a high school heavy on requirements preparing them for the Michigan Merit Exam and college, said Rockford Freshman Center Principal Tom Hosford. In other words, “It counts now.”
“They come in as eighth-graders and leave as young men and women,” Hosford said.
Smaller School Fosters Community
At Rockford’s Freshman Center, opened in 2000, about 600 students occupy a former junior high just east of the high school. They follow the same bell schedule as those at the main high school, and buses troop many of them next door for marching band, Chinese and upper-level classes. Conversely, high school students come to the RFC for fourth-year German.
The school provides students opportunities for growth, such as an upcoming “reality fair” showcasing career options; a student council renaissance group stressing positive culture and community service; awareness training in digital citizenship; and a service-oriented Leo Club in partnership with the Lions.
A new program this year gives students a chance to provide constructive feedback on their school. Small groups meet periodically with Hosford and Amshey to give their perspectives on school, which helps staffers make improvements, Hosford said. “Our students are our customers; we can learn a lot from them.”
In a recent meeting with Amshey, students weighed in on their World Studies classes, from suggesting different seating arrangements to more time for in-depth discussions. Asked what made them excited – and nervous — about going to the 1,840-student high school next year, some answered the same for both, like being in a bigger building and having more choices.
“Once you get to high school, there’s a massive amount of options you can do,” said Samuel Radtke. “You can choose whatever path you want.” Yes, but, said Mitch McCrone: “There are a lot more electives and opportunities, but it’s also kind of confusing on which classes you want to take, where your credits are at and how to get around the building.”
But afterward, students said that on balance the Freshman Center is a good stepping stone for them.
“You’ve got a bigger environment (than middle school), but it doesn’t go straight from small to big,” Samuel said. Added Mitch, “It’s a good way to get to know your own grade.”
Still, it would be nice to be in the same school with older students, especially your teammates in softball or wrestling, some said. Swimmers need to walk through the winter cold to get to the high school pool, and sometimes shuttles to classes run late.
Though there are “definite plusses and minuses,” Amshey said students overall like the community feel and smaller school.
“I hear frequently how kids were really relieved about how easy it was to make the transition here,” she said. “Like, ‘OK, I was prepared for this.'”
Critical Year for Graduation
Each school year about 770 students complete ninth grade at the East Kentwood Freshman Campus, a stand-alone facility next to East Kentwood High School. Students come from Crestwood, Pinewood and Valleywood Middle Schools and several other area schools. Each class forms a unique identity during a crucial time in their education, said Siderman, the principal.
“If you look at research, third and ninth grade are the two most critical years,” she said. “A successful freshman year gives students a much higher likelihood of graduating in four years.”
The Freshman Campus opened in 1994 due to overcrowding at the main high school building, but it’s become aplace where students are nurtured as 14- and 15-year-olds with unique needs before heading off to 10th grade.
For the past three years, staff has worked in teams of four teachers in math, social studies, science and English, with about 110 students on each team. Because of that structure, teachers have the opportunity to support students in ways they couldn’t otherwise. It’s had a significant impact on student growth and achievement, Siderman said.
“When students get a consistent sense of grading and behavior expectations, and when they have consistent core teachers that stay with them for an entire school year, we’ve found that there’s more ownership,” she said. “It builds relationships, which also impacts student success.”
Much growth occurs during freshman year, going from “very middle school-like to start our school year and high school-like to end it,” she said.
‘It’s Just Kind of Us’
English teacher Carol Rizkalla started teaching at the Freshman Campus when it first opened. She said she loves the excitement and enthusiasm of the age group, but stresses the importance of making the most of freshman year. “It’s the make-or-break-it year. Data has shown that.”
A downside of separating freshmen is that they miss out on having older students model expectations, she said, but many students value having their own space.
“Older students come back and say they really missed the Freshman Campus because they feel like family here,” Rizkalla said.
Ninth-grader Lizzie Hackett said it’s nice to have a separate building. Students form strong relationships with one another and teachers, though they aren’t as connected with older students — and it can be a cold walk to the main building for Student Council and advanced classes. “It’s really nice and innovative to have a separate place to learn and teachers that are specifically designed for that,” Lizzie said.
“We have our own area to be with our own class,” said freshman Morgan Cash. “It’s just kind of us; we don’t have to worry about older (grades).”