Crowd with hands on their shoulders and the view of the clear sky.

In 2010, as a new assistant principal at Joplin High School in Joplin, MO, one of my responsibilities was to help reduce the number of failing students. According to local statistics, approximately 25 percent of all high school students were dropping out. As a freshman principal, I felt challenged by the statistics. At that time, the eighth-grade data for incoming freshmen revealed 138 at-risk students according to attendance, discipline, academic history, and assessment results. 

We began researching successful freshmen transition programs, but we soon discovered that very few substantial strategies for freshman support existed. In addition, numerous studies indicated that more students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school—thereby justifying its moniker as the “make it or break it year” in secondary education.

In August 2011, Joplin High School began its first yearlong freshman mentoring program based on a national model designed to make freshmen feel welcome and comfortable during their first year of high school. The national program provided us with a great foundation and structure. But in 2014, as a result of the feedback received from our freshmen and student leaders, we felt it necessary to rebrand our continuously evolving program. 

Birth of Fusion 

A diverse group of students and program coordinators met during the summer of 2014 to determine the needs of our school and piece together the details of the freshman transition program; we relied on collaboration with teachers, administrators, community members, and especially students. The program—Fusion—fuses tradition and innovation to bring students together for success. It’s built on the belief that a successful freshman year will have a positive impact on cohort graduation rates..

Our main objectives for the Fusion program are: 

  • Support freshmen through a yearlong mentoring program

  • Train, equip, empower, and support student leaders

  • Partner with teachers to administer an effective advisory program

  • Provide academic support and intervention through a peer-​tutoring program

  • Strengthen the mental health of students through peer advocacy and counseling programs

The principle goals of the program include:

  • Every freshman will participate in a school activity, sport, or club 

  • Ninth-grade students will achieve 95 percent course completion

  • The school will see a decrease in the number of freshman discipline referrals 

How the Fusion Program Works

We currently have about 580 freshman students. Each freshman is assigned to an advisory group of 14 peers, one teacher, and three Fusion student leaders. (One additional leader is assigned for students with disabilities needing 1:1 assistance.) Advisory groups are created and remain intact for the entire freshman year with the hope that the close-knit relationships will help fuel the success of the program.

The first step was finding our Fusion leaders. We set up the program so teachers can nominate students, or students may complete an application and provide two teacher recommendations. Once applications are received, a five-person student panel conducts interviews and scores candidates by a rubric. The student panel charts candidate activities and demographics, then recruits additional applicants from underrepresented groups. This creates a balance of juniors and seniors. Students who are selected are held to high standards for the entire school year. They are expected to demonstrate good citizenship not only at school, but also in their personal lives. In addition, Fusion leaders are required to enroll in one of four yearlong leadership courses.

Preparing Fusion Leaders for Success

Students are the most powerful resource in our school, and we know it is our responsibility to empower them to lead. We provide Fusion leaders opportunities to develop their own talents and skills while discovering their own leadership potential. Students are trained to take charge.

Before the school year begins, Fusion student leaders learn to work with each other and then begin preparing to lead small- and large-group activities during the first event of the year: freshman orientation. At orientation, Fusion leaders introduce themselves and the advisory groups to the ninth graders, offer a freshman survival guide, and provide team-building and other fun activities. During the 2014–15 school year, 130 student leaders were prepared to welcome approximately 565 incoming freshmen.

Monthly Meetings

Once the school year starts, advisory teachers meet with their ninth graders three times a week (12 times each month). During three of those 12 monthly meetings, Fusion student leaders attend as well. Fusion leaders and advisory teachers do many of the same things. The difference is that one interaction is student to student(s), while the other is teacher to student(s). (The teachers have access to the freshman students’ grades, attendance, and discipline data, so the way they frame their conversations looks different than the 1:1 conferencing conducted by Fusion student leaders.) Advisory teachers communicate with the freshman students’ teachers and/or parents to advocate for their students.

During three of those days, instead of attending their own grade-level advisory class, Fusion leaders go to a freshman advisory class. Although the advisory teacher is present, she or he takes a back seat and allows the Fusion student leaders to facilitate the lesson or activities for those three class periods. 

During one of those sessions, Fusion students lead a gathering—an activity designed to encourage and sustain a sense of community among students. On another day, the Fusion student leaders teach a skill development lesson (perhaps something that addresses a social-emotional issue or how to succeed in high school, careers, credits, etc.). During the third meeting, Fusion student leaders do 1:1 conferencing where they conduct personal and academic checkups. Because student leaders do not have access to confidential student information, they focus on asking their freshmen more open-ended questions such as, “How do you feel you are doing in school?” “Are you happy with your grades?” or “Is there anything you need help with?” Freshmen open up to their Fusion leaders differently than they do to teachers. After conferencing, if Fusion leaders feel a freshman student is in need of additional support, they report that need to administrators, teachers, or counselors, who follow up with the freshman to connect the student to the resources he or she needs. 

In addition to the many fun activities and social-emotional supports provided by Fusion, our student leaders organize, staff, and provide a Freshman Homework Lab—available before or after school—in which they tutor freshmen who are struggling or have low grades. 

Community Partnership

Fusion is funded through community efforts and a student-operated school store. As students plan events for the freshmen, they are responsible for sharing the vision and presenting their needs to local businesses and establishments. Students make presentations to CEOs of corporations, the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, and many local businesses, which also helps them build leadership skills.

The payoff at Joplin High School is better learning, better experiences, and better students. We are confident that the benefits of this program contribute to improved graduation rates and school culture (and we have proof; see “By the Numbers” below). We have more students on track for graduation after ninth grade. In fact, the graduation rate increased from 79.4 percent in 2011 to 85.5 percent in 2014. Joplin High School believes that by putting the right supports and resources in place, freshmen will experience improved academic performance and cause fewer discipline issues. We are indebted to those who work alongside us in bringing students together for success.

Sidebar: By the Numbers

Results after one year of the freshman transition program:

  • During the 2014–15 school year, 78.23 percent (442 freshmen) were involved in a school activity, sport, or club at Joplin High School

  • The course completion rate went from 90 percent in 2010 to 95 percent in 2015

  • In two years, there was a 42 percent reduction in the number of failing grades received by freshmen

  • Since the 2010–11 school year, there has been a 53.6 percent reduction in the number of discipline referrals at the freshman level. Before the program was enacted (during the 2010–11 school year), there were 2,196 discipline referrals for ninth graders; at the close of the 2014–15 school year, that number dropped by nearly a thousand-there were 1,178 freshman discipline referrals.

Sandra Cantwell is special education director at Joplin Schools, former assistant principal of Joplin High School in Joplin, MO, and the 2015 Missouri Assistant Principal of the Year.