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Headed to High School? Let’s Get Ready

New Course Helps Middle Schoolers Make Transition


Eighth-graders Tailynn Dersh and Kathryn Gates look over their life choices on a piece of paper, bags of beans in hand. Tailynn has a hypothetical high school diploma, giving her 10 beans to work with. Kathryn, with a graduate degree, has 20.

In this middle school class exercise on personal finances, Kathryn places her beans on pretty much everything she wants: her own home, a new car, buying clothes at a department store, cell phone and 10 percent left over in savings. Tailynn at first buys the home and goes to the department store, but, coming up short in beans, switches to renting and a discount clothing mart. No car – she figures she’ll walk or bike.

“We have to make sacrifices all the time,” teacher Jennifer Warner-Leja tells her class at East Rockford Middle School. “That’s part of normal adult life.”

Olivia Challa, left, and Delcie Mortimore discuss the difference between needs and wants in what they value

So is having to budget and knowing how important education is to income – knowledge students need to have as soon as they get to high school, Warner-Leja says. That’s why she developed this new course, High School 101, which she began teaching this semester along with Melissa Schmidt at North Rockford Middle School.

“Chances are,” Warner-Leja tells the class, “the more education you have, the more you’re going to get …”

“Paid,” several students say.

In this elective course, students also learn about goal-setting, time and stress management, healthy dating and friendships, study skills and even CPR. All are key to helping students make the transition from eighth to ninth grades – and get on the right track to college and career.

“I want them to be facing forward so when they hit high school, they hit the ground running,” says Warner-Leja, a family and consumer sciences teacher.

What’s a ‘GPA’?

Warner-Leja conceived of the course last year, her first at East Middle, after eight years of teaching high school in other districts. She saw a “big disconnect” in what incoming freshmen needed to know and what they were in fact prepared for, both academically and socially.

“They come in, and they don’t even know what a GPA is,” says Warner-Leja, referring to grade-point average. “They don’t understand that if they tank their GPA in their freshman year, they can’t get it back out.” In other words, those bad grades will hurt their GPA at graduation time.

‘I want them to be facing forward so when they hit high school, they hit the ground running.’ – Jennifer Warner-Leja, East Rockford Middle School teacher

Consulting with Schmidt, she developed a course that included “everything that possibly a high school freshman would need going in, and that wasn’t happening for them.” That includes tobacco and alcohol issues, social media, software programs and taking a personal inventory regarding possible career pathways. The teachers received training to teach CPR with a grant from the Rockford Education Foundation.

“It’s getting them ready for all the social pressure and academic pressure that high school will bring, and furthermore even college will bring,” says Warner-Leja, who teaches one High School 101 class this fall and two next semester.

Jennifer Warner-Leja developed the High School 101 course at East Rockford Middle School

Even though her students will go to the Rockford Freshman Center before high school, she says the course will get them thinking ahead about the skills and knowledge they’ll need for college, scholarships and/or a good job. She hopes as ninth-graders her students will “know what to expect” about high school and beyond.

“To put it bluntly, I don’t want the 2-by-4 to hit them in the back of the head,” she says. “So many get hit in the back of the head, and they never saw it coming.”

What Life Will Cost

In the personal finance unit, her students did exercises that would probably benefit many an adult. For instance, they filled out an inventory of what they would want as adults – living with parents or in their own apartment, new or used car, etc. – then calculated how much that would actually cost.

Trinity Vega’s wants added up to $79,000 a year – good to know, she says, along with her personality type that she learned in an earlier session. She has her eyes on college, preferably with a softball scholarship, and says the class helps her prepare for that.

“I like this course a lot,” Trinity says after class. “We get to learn more about what the reality of your life will be, instead of expectations.”

Riley Peterson found lessons on goal-setting and stress management to be especially helpful.

“I’m excited for high school,” Riley says. “I’m excited for college, learning about my future.”

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How to Prepare for High School

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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