It’s 8 a.m. on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning and regional high school principal Steven Nixon is seated at the head of a conference table in the school’s library conference room. He leans back casually in his chair as he speaks to a room full of parents about enrollment and scheduling. These are some of the same topics wedged between business and budget discussions at high school committee meetings, which are held in the same room, but today’s event is decidedly less formal.
The hour-long sessions, held every other Tuesday during the school year, are designed to bring the busy principal face-to-face with parents to address individual concerns or to review important information about the school.
Parents arrive at different times throughout the meeting, grabbing a cup of coffee and muffin before they sit at the table. On this Tuesday morning, the central topic is the transition from eighth grade to high school. It’s a timely subject, since in a week an eighth grade parents night is scheduled. The transition from eighth grade to high school is somewhat unique to the Island, where most students spend kindergarten through eighth grade in the same building with the same students before being funneled into a single high school.
“Every school has a different vibe,” says freshman guidance counselor John Fiorito, who is attending the principal’s coffee to answer questions. He says while the change can be challenging, it can also be quite rewarding.
Mr. Nixon agrees. “There are kids who are successful just because of the change of environment. There is a level of self-identification once you get into the building,” the principal says.
Mr. Fiorito, who visits individual eighth grade classrooms in late winter and spring to answer questions and guide students through the switch, says that many of the kids are concerned about the stereotypical version of the first day of high school, where freshmen are stuffed into lockers by bullying upperclassmen. The reality is of course far less terrifying, he says.
Mr. Fiorito says older students are actually very supportive, knowing full well how intimidating that first day can be. The real challenge is adjusting to a complicated new schedule with only five minutes between periods to navigate the halls and find your way to the next class.
That’s why the high school tries to get a conversation going now, before students finish eighth grade. Wish lists for courses are submitted by students before February break, and course schedules are arranged in the spring. The advance preparation is equally important to the school administration, Mr. Nixon says, describing the scheduling process as an “immense undertaking,” with almost 400 courses to plan for.
Freshman year at the high school is the first time that most students get to choose their own electives, and while core courses dictate which electives are available to each student, the process becomes easier as students move up in the school and begin to get certain graduation requirements out of the way. “It’s basically first come, first served,” Mr. Nixon says in describing the elective choices for incoming freshmen.
He also explains a new program that was quietly introduced this year, where a group of 18 students were taught across subject matter in the core disciplines of history, English, math and science. Four teachers, one from each core area, formed a team and coordinated lesson plans. History was used as the foundation because it is taught chronologically.
For example, Mr. Nixon says, while learning about the Middle Ages in history, students studied literature from the same time period in English. Material taught in math and science classes also related in some way to the era.
Mr. Nixon describes the practice as “teaching life from different viewpoints,” to show that learning can be applied across a broad spectrum. This year was a test year for the program.
Mr. Nixon tells parents that the school administration will evaluate the program at the end of the year to decide if it was effective, and he notes that the teachers involved have been enthusiastic about the results so far, and would like to continue it. “I didn’t ask them to continue the program, they volunteered,” he says.
The next coffee with Principal Nixon will be held on Tuesday, March 2 from 8 to 9:15 a.m. in the school library conference room. All are welcome.