First Person

Seven ways to prepare for middle and high school transitions

Q: What can I do to help my children make the transition to middle school and high school?

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Whether it’s sixth grade or ninth, graduating to a new school level usually means bigger school buildings, larger student bodies, more choices and more freedom. Along with excitement, students can feel anxiety, frustration and isolation. We spoke with several veteran middle and high school educators who gave us the following advice for how parents can help their children make a smooth transition.

1. Logistics are the hardest part

Let’s start with middle school, where students’ first hurdles are logistical — needing to remember a locker combination, learning the building layout and getting to class on time.

“It’s all those little things that at their stage of development become everything to them,” said Sandra Bickel, principal of Webber Middle School in the Poudre School District.

One safeguard is early exposure. Jessica Fiedler, principal of Westlake Middle Schools in Adams 12, urged parents to make sure their kids visit their future middle school as fifth-graders and attend any orientation or kick-off activities prior to the start of school. This and a variety of other suggestions are contained in the district’s 11-page “Middle School Transition Guide“.

2. Let them handle challenges on their own

Both Fiedler and Bickel emphasized the importance of giving children the space to handle challenges on their own. That could mean letting them fiddle with their combination lock without stepping in to help. Or, if they come home with a complaint about an assignment or class, pushing them to problem solve for themselves.

Instead of stepping in with a solution, Fiedler said, parents might ask, “Have you spoken with your teacher?”

Bickel said homework is another area where parents should show support but not take over. She said parents can help by focusing their praise not on talent or natural ability, but the hard work their child is doing.

“Praise the effort,” she said. “Parents can let their kids struggle through some of that and not enable [them].”

3. Don’t end your involvement; change it

Parent involvement is still important as children grow older — the form just needs to change, middle school educators said. Classroom volunteering is usually not appropriate after middle school, they said, but parents can show interest by having dinner with their children, asking about their day and monitoring their phone use and social media presence.

“If parents just wash their hands of it and give them free reign…it can be very damaging to kids,” said Bickel. Sixth-graders “want to be treated more like young adults…but they’re not.”

Jen Holm, a counselor at Webber, noted that extracurricular activities, whether at school or in the community, are also very important to students’ success. She said while parents should let their children pick activities themselves, she suggested parents say, “You need to be involved in something every quarter of the year.”

4. In high school, establish routines

When it comes to the high school transition, “the absolute number one thing that’s different is the amount of freedom,” said Pam Smiley, principal of Horizon High School in Adams 12.

Students have to adjust to not being part of “teams” as they might have been in middle school, having a broader spectrum of peers and a wider range of movement within the school building. In addition, she said, “The rigor amps up a little bit. The amount of work amps up a little bit.”

For some students, the demands of high school can bring about feelings of loneliness and isolation, she said.

She said parents can help their new high-schoolers by setting up after-school routines at home to ensure homework gets done at  and students stay organized.

5. Monitor progress

Smiley also recommends that parents monitor their students’ grades and attendance if the school offers some type of online parent portal showing students’ progress. One system used at some Colorado schools is called Infinite Campus.

If parents see poor grades or attendance, it may be a sign that the student is wasting study time, battling disorganization or struggling in some other way. Smiley also suggested that parents push their students to monitor their own progress on Infinite Campus or whatever system their school uses.

6. Keep track of friends

At both middle and high school, educators recommend that parents keep track of their child’s friends. Smiley said parents should be wary if their ninth-grader starts hanging out with 11th– or 12th graders, whether in a romantic relationship or a platonic friendship.

“It’s usually never a good thing,” she said, noting that  older students sometimes take advantage of the younger ones.

7. Red flags to watch for

At the middle school level, Bickel and Fiedler said red flags that may indicate the transition isn’t going well include students complaining of headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness or simply not wanting to go to school.

“That’s definitely a time when parents need to say, ‘What’s going on?’” said Fiedler.

Smiley recommended parents not only watch for any out-of-character behavior, but also any mismatches between how students say things are going and what their grades or other indicators suggest.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.