How can we increase our graduation rate? How can we work together to help connect our freshmen with our school? In what ways can we engage our faculty members with our most at-risk freshmen when they enter high school? How can we track the progress of students who may struggle with the transition from the middle level into high school?

Within America’s high schools, administrators are asking similar questions. At North Oconee High School (NOHS) in Bogart, GA, these questions caused us to create an innovative program that has increased the graduation rate to more than 97 percent. This program is a direct result of school personnel exploring ways to help connect faculty and staff members with students, collect real-time data, and provide an advocate for incoming freshmen.

Pushing for Successful Transitions

In the summer of 2014, four teachers and an assistant principal met about a program to help students make a successful transition to NOHS. We wanted to explore ways to be proactive instead of reactive. (This group continually wound up together in parent meetings for freshmen who were not performing.) The initiative started as an extension of an advisement program to make sure that the most at-risk freshmen students had at least one caring adult to help them at school.

The feeder middle school for NOHS staff helps identify 20–30 freshmen who need mentoring during the transition. Each student is paired with a mentor from the faculty or staff, and they meet weekly for the entire school year to discuss grades, attendance, extracurricular activities, behavior, and student engagement. The majority of students identified are served through multitiered system of support (MTSS) tier II or tier III for academic or behavioral concerns. Other students are identified by counselors due to social and emotional need. Students served through special education and “English to speakers of other languages” classes are not usually recommended for freshmen coaching because their needs are met through the specialized tier IV programs.

Program Startup

Starting in May of each school year, the program’s coordinator surveys the faculty to determine who is interested in serving as a mentor and gathers information to help match faculty members with freshmen based on similar interests and scheduling. The results provide to the coordinator not only the number of mentors, but also information about how to match a freshman coach to a student—e.g., a common lunch, attendance in the freshman coach’s class or in the freshman coach’s homeroom, or common interests.

In the late spring of students’ eighth-grade year, the program’s coordinator, the middle level principal, and middle level counselors meet to discuss the students identified for the program. During this meeting, middle level staff provides specific information to the high school about each student’s individual needs, which helps us to select an appropriate coach for each student.
Over the summer, the freshman coordinator.

Over the summer, the freshman coordinator works to assign a freshman coach to each student based on the information from the survey and the meeting with middle level staff. During planning, the program’s coordinator meets with all freshman coaches to address the program’s goals for the year, provide training, communicate expectations, and ensure the coaches have the information they need on their students. One week before the first day of school, the freshman coordinator mails a letter to all parents with students involved in the program. The letter provides a summary of the program, the success of the program, and information about an open house.

Relationship Between Feeder Schools

The communication between the freshman coaching coordinator and the middle level administration and counselors is extremely important. The May meeting provides a good start, but throughout the year the coordinator can call upon the school for assistance and more information for clarification. There is a great deal of trust between the middle level administration and counselors and the freshman coaching team. Both schools must believe that success in high school is also a result of the success of the middle level team and vice versa.

In the 2014–15 school year, we organized a committee of volunteers who were passionate about the needs of these students for this program—one academic teacher from each subject area that teaches a ninth-grade course, one fine arts teacher, one counselor, and one administrator. Twice a year, the committee convenes to discuss student progress and communication gathered from the coaches. At the midpoint of the year, students who have been identified through MTSS can be added to the program if necessary.

Communication to Freshman Coaches

During the fall semester, once a week the freshman coaches complete a survey addressing student performance in their classes, attendance, behavior, and social/emotional adjustment to high school. The coordinator keeps a record of the meetings and reviews the spreadsheet with all responses twice a month over the fall semester. If any issues need to be addressed, the coordinator will contact a counselor or administrator as needed.

In the spring semester, the freshman coaches complete the survey once a month. The coordinator continues to review the responses and notify a counselor or administrator as needed. The communication aspect with the coordinator is essential to tracking progress on each student.

The first group of students in 2014–15 (about 20) were all in a common homeroom, so the homeroom teacher could help students with questions, address concerns, monitor grades, and be a mentor for them throughout high school. This homeroom teacher remained with the students as they progressed to their senior year and graduated from North Oconee.

As students progress from ninth grade to 10th grade, the freshman coaches do not have to continue meetings; however, the students frequently continue to check in with their coaches. Several freshman coaches say that their students let them know how they are doing in classes and come by their classrooms to talk about things at school.

“I have noticed that many of our students have maintained positive relationships with their mentor teachers well past their freshman year,” notes one freshman coach. “I have personally been able to encourage a student to continue to work hard, turn in homework on time, and get engaged in school activities, and I don’t believe that would have been possible without the relationship that was formed during his freshman year.”

Students also see the benefit. “Having my freshman coach helped me through any issues or questions I had my freshman year,” notes one student. “I’m very thankful for my coach, who has given me her time and effort to ensure that I was well cared for, and [she] made sure that my grades were well kept, especially in what I felt were hard classes.”

Being proactive in our approach to building relationships and providing support resonates with parents as well. “The extra effort to work with my child and help him make the transition to high school is one of the main reasons that he will graduate on time with his class,” says one parent with a freshman in the program.

Building Success

It takes consistency for any school program to be successful. Over the five years of the program, several faculty members continue to serve as freshman coaches each year. Experienced coaches are an asset to the program because they can support students and guide the newer coaches. We believe this program is another way for our school to show our students that we truly care about their success and progress. It helps our school live our motto: “Everything Matters, Everyone Matters!”

Philip Brown, PhD, is the principal of North Oconee High School in Bogart, GA. Christina Spears is the freshman coaching coordinator at North Oconee High School and 2019 Georgia Biology Teacher of the Year. Meri Blackburn, PhD, is a former middle level principal and now serves as the secondary curriculum director for Oconee County Schools in Watkinsville, GA.