Countdown to High School


BLFE Innovation Incubator Proposal

Countdown to High School 

Proposed by:

Neema Avashia, teacher at the McCormack Middle School

Laura Cennamo, teacher at the Tobin K-8 School

Mike Cermak, doctoral student at Boston College

Felicia Kazer, teacher at the McCormack Middle School

Jessica Madden-Fuoco, administrator at New Mission & Charlestown High Schools

Donna Reed, teacher at the Frederick Pilot Middle School

Noel Reyes, teacher at Urban Science Academy   


Statement of Need 

Ms. Avashia teaches at the McCormack Middle School.  In her classes every day, the attendance rate is well over 90%, with only a small handful of students who are chronically tardy or absent. In her 1st period class each day, there are, on average, 26 out of 28 students present. Mr. Reyes teaches at the Urban Science Academy in the West Roxbury Educational Complex. In his classes every day, the attendance rate hovers just below 80%. In his 1st period class each day, there are, on average, 14 out of 30 students present at the start of class, and 20 out of 30 by the time class ends.  

Seeing so many of their students leave the Boston Public School system without diplomas has led Ms. Avashia, Mr. Reyes, and a number of their colleagues to ask questions: What happens between middle school and high school? How do 8th graders who are consistent with attendance, and demonstrate strong academic performance become disconnected and disengaged from school within the span of just 2-3 years? How do students who are clearly expressing a desire to go to college at 14 end up leaving the system before they turn 18?  

A recent Boston Public Schools-commissioned report showed that only 53% of high school students at Boston’s non-exam schools make it through high school in four years; about three out of four of the students who don’t graduate in four years ultimately drop out. In 2005-2006, 1,900 students – more than 9.1% of the District’s high school population – dropped out, and the report’s authors estimate that more than 4,500 currently enrolled students are off-track and almost certain to drop out. Importantly, this study pointed to the 8th and 9th grade years as critical ones in predicting whether students graduate. Students who demonstrate 8th grade risk factors, including an attendance rate of 80% or lower, being 2 or more years overage, and/or failing multiple courses, and who subsequently go on to fail core courses in 9th grade, are far more likely to drop out than their peers (Parthenon Group, 2007).  

At present, there are also major systemic barriers in our schools, and school system, that contribute to students’ struggles with making the transition. Our initial research shows that some of the significant barriers are:   

Transportation: There is very little transportation provided to get high school students to school each morning, and home each afternoon. 

Attendance: Many students’ tardies and absences increase dramatically upon entering high school. This is partly because of transportation challenges, but also because students must wake up even earlier in the morning to get to school on time, particularly when travel time from home to school can take well over an hour. 

Change in Academic Expectations: Many students experience a significant shift in academic expectations compared to middle school. The expectations may be higher, or they may be lower, but either way, it can cause students to struggle. 

Lack of structure around after-school time: There are far fewer after-school resources available to high school students than there are to K-8 students. The school day, in many cases, ends by 2 p.m., and that leaves students with a lot of unstructured time on their hands.

Reduced Communication with Families as Kids Get Older: As students enter high school, they start to view themselves as ‘adults’, even though they are still 14 and 15 years old. Many high school teachers and administrators begin to view them as adults, as well, and therefore choose to communicate directly with students about their performance, rather than involving families.

Appropriate Student-School Match
: Sometimes students choose a high school based on what they think they want, only to get there and realize that it's not the right fit for them. In other cases, a student might be on an IEP and find that the school does not have supports adequate to meet his/her needs.   

We know that the transition from 8th to 9th grade can present major challenges for Boston Public Schools students. We also know that if the transition is not made smoother, the long-term implications for students can be quite serious, causing them to struggle academically, repeat years of high school, or to drop out. At present, there is no district-wide conversation about this issue, and no district-wide programming in place to support students through the transition. There is also no city-wide mode of communication with families and students that makes transparent the challenges inherent in the 8th to 9th grade transition, and that provides families with strategies for navigating the transition, and ensuring that their children do not struggle in ways that would lead them to drop out. In response to this, we propose the Countdown to High School initiative.   

Proposed Innovation: Countdown to high school

Our proposed innovation is divided into three distinct parts: (1) Recommendations to the Superintendent, Principals, and Teachers; (2) Technology-based resources; (3) A High School Transition Curriculum. 

Part 1: Recommendations

We intend to make a set of formal recommendations to the Superintendent, Principals, and Teachers.  While we cannot formulate our precise recommendations before our research is complete, the general theme of our recommendations will call for a refocusing of attention, time, and resources onto the transition between eighth and ninth grade. We intend to present the Superintendent, school leaders, and teachers with specific measures they can take to help smooth the transition.  Essentially, we are calling for the district to put as many resources into the “Countdown to High School” process as they do for “Countdown to Kindergarten”—our teenagers are in need of an equal amount of support.   

Part 2: Technology-based resources

One central theme that guides our work is the need to make this process more transparent. We intend to do that by building a student- and family-friendly website that (a) explains the steps of the high school transition process, (b) provides a timeline for students and families to follow with regard to fulfilling their responsibilities and making important decisions, (c) provides a user-friendly interface where students and families can research and compare schools, and (d) illuminates both the stumbling blocks students may encounter during the transition, and the strategies used to overcome those stumbling blocks.  This website will also provide photos of schools, videos of teachers and students talking about schools, and up-to-date contact information for students and teachers who are interested in sharing information about their school with prospective students.  Because many of our teenagers are accustomed to using the internet to find information, we believe this website will be immensely popular among eighth graders, and the high school students who help to publish the website.  In addition, we will produce a DVD that will have chapters for different audiences: 1) for middle school students to help them prepare for the transition; 2) for 9th Grade students about how to get off to a good start; 3) for families about how to support their children through this process; and 4) for teachers and principals about what schools can do to better support students.  

Part 3: A High School Transition Curriculum

We believe that the process of transitioning to high school is important enough that schools should formally present the process to students and families through a set curriculum. In other words, families and students can’t be expected to just learn about it on their own, or get a notice in the mail about a particular form they are supposed to fill out.  Therefore, we intend to produce a curriculum for schools to use when they educate their students and families about the high school transition process at the start of the eighth grade year and beyond.  This curriculum will be designed to address the following issues: (a) What is the high school transition process? (b) What are my responsibilities as a student and family member in this process? (c) What timeline should I be following to ensure that my needs will be met by the district? (d) How can I get information about specific schools? (e) What factors should I consider in my decision-making process? (f) What are common stumbling blocks that students face when entering the ninth grade, and how can they be addressed?  The process of assembling this curriculum will also allow us to produce a resource guide for teachers of eighth and ninth grade for helping students smooth the transition, as well as a guide for school-based educators who are interested in setting up workshops for families, high school fairs, high school tours, panel discussions, and other events designed to help students succeed in making the transition.  

First Steps & Resources Required

In November of 2008, we (a group of Boston Public School teachers, administrators and community activists) began meeting after school.  Supported by the Boston Teacher Residency, we engaged in the steps of the Participatory Action Research process and identified an issue that negatively affected us and our community.  We selected the 8th to 9th Grade transition issue and have started conducting research to better understand the issue and possible solutions. As 8th grade teachers, high school teachers and high school administrators, we are uniquely poised to understand the challenges facing young people in Boston as they make this transition.  

In addition to the research that we have begun, we have piloted some strategies in a middle school. In a series of lessons for 8th Graders, we helped them explore the common questions eighth graders ask such as, “How should I know what school I want to go to?” and “What kinds of things should I look for in a school?” In addition to this classroom work, we created opportunities to engage parents in this conversation.  All parents of eighth graders at the McCormack Middle School were invited to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Smoothing the Transition to High School.”  Parents who attended received a pamphlet detailing the challenges kids face as they transition from middle to high school.  They also heard from high school teachers, administrators and students about this topic.  During this event, parents had an opportunity to hear about the challenges, gather information, ask questions, and build relationships with others entering the transition phase. 

Beyond our ongoing work of providing resources and information for eighth students and families, we have initiated conversations with community organizations in order to learn about the work they do with families around the transition, and better understand how we can support them, and the families of our students.  We have also created two different surveys: one for eighth grade students and one for high school students.  This survey is online and we have begun to collect data, and will do so until school ends on June 26th. Once we have analyzed the data, we plan to present our findings to community organizations; to representatives of Boston Public Schools, including Michele Brooks, Assistant Superintendent of the department of Community and Family Engagement; as well as soon-to-be-graduates of the Boston Teacher Residency, to get their feedback on the data, and on our proposed interventions.  

In addition, we are currently in the process of conducting interviews with students and teachers about the transition to high school, in order to gather footage for a DVD that could be used to illustrate the challenges inherent in this transition, and explain what students, teachers, administrators, and families can do to make the transition go more smoothly. This footage will also be used on our “Countdown to High School” website that will be up and running by October of 2009 to provide families, students, teachers, administrators, and community members with a one-stop resource guide for choosing a high school, and the navigating the transition into high school.  

The primary resource that we need to continue with this work is also the most abstract of resources: district support. We need the support and endorsement of the Boston Public Schools to make this effort fully take-off. We would want families to be able to link to our website directly from the Boston Public Schools site, and to have our website advertised in the “Family Matters” newsletter that is sent out by the district to families on a quarterly basis. Furthermore, we would need the district’s permission to engage in strategic conversations with district officials, school-level administrators, and teachers around the transition to high school.  

The financial resources needed to complete this work are largely nominal (domain name, brochures, etc.), but we believe that to truly support students through this transition will require the presence of a person in each K-8, middle, and high school who dedicates some portion of their time to these issues. With support from the Countdown to High School initiative, this school-based staff member would receive a stipend for coordinating the transition support activities at the school.  


What things will happen as a result of our project?

Our project will produce and support the following:

  1. Website with resources for families, students, teachers, and administrators with a link on the website:                                                                                               a.    For families and students: how to choose a high school, how to be successful in high  school, advice from current high school students, etc.

    b.    For teachers: lesson plans and class handouts for middle and high school teachers to help their students prepare for and do well with the transition, readings about the transition to use in class, etc.

    c.    For administrators: a guide to how to develop middle school and high school transition programming related to the transition, etc.

  1. List of research-based recommendations for schools, the district, and community organizations
  2. Agendas and materials for workshops for:

      a.    Principals at summer institute

    b.    Transition coordinators (stipended staff member who is responsible for supporting transition planning) at each middle school and high school

    c. Middle school and high school teachers who plan to implement transition support curricula

    d. Community organizations who support families and students with the transition

    e. Families and students about how to choose a high school, advocate for themselves through the process, and be successful in high school 

What will the impact be?

Our quantitative measures of success:

  1. Increase in number of students who fill out high school registration forms and submit them (therefore avoiding being administratively-assigned to a high school s/he did not choose)
  • Baseline data is # of 2009 forms submitted in each round of registration for high school
  • Target is increase in # of 2010 forms submitted (percentage increase will be determined based on baseline data)
  1. Increase in number of transition programs
  • Baseline data will be number and quality of current programs reported by principals and teachers at middle and high schools
  • Target is for all middle and high schools to report that they supported at least ___ of the recommended actions
  1. Increase in number of students who report that their schools took steps to support them through the transition
  • Baseline data will be culled from both the High School Transition survey (HS students) and the Making the Transition to High School Survey (MS students)
  • Target is for an increase in the number of students who report at least 3 specific actions that their schools took to support them through the transition

How will the experience of BPS students be different because of this project?

At present, 8th graders receive varying levels of guidance and support with making decisions around high school choice. 9th graders receive varying levels of guidance and support around transitioning to high school. Our core belief is that this variance is unjust, and is one of the major reasons why so many students struggle so deeply with the transition, and why Boston has such a high overall drop-out rate. Our desire is that, as a result of this project, we will inject more transparency into two aspects of the schooling experience for students in Boston: the high school choice process and the transition to high school itself. If our project comes to fruition, every 8th grader will be taught about the key issues to consider when choosing a high school. They, and their families, will be made aware of the specific challenges they will face in transitioning to high school, and of the strategies they can use to overcome those challenges. And then, when they are in high school, students will be welcomed and supported through the transition by way of orientation activities, relationship-building, and guidance on the challenges of transportation, changes in academics, and the other issues. In a system where transparency has been lacking, and where students and families have been struggling independently to navigate the challenges presented by the transition to high school, we will provide increased clarity, community, and support to ensure that students successfully navigate the transition, and earn a high school diploma, rather than dropping out.