Going from being the 8th grade rulers of middle school to 9th grade high school underdogs is one of the toughest transitions most students will ever make. Unfortunately, not all of them are successful.
A 2008 study of three Duval County high schools by the Community Foundation in Jacksonville found that more students leave school after their freshman year than at any other time.
Andrew Jackson High School principal Michele Floyd-Hatcher says 9th graders have a lot on their plate both academically and socially. It’s a year that’s fraught with anxiety.
“I mean the students they’re here with are a lot older than them because they are the babies in the school, they are the youngest, so seeing things the older students may do or say and just trying to fit in, it's just a different environment,” she said.
To try and ease the move from middle to high school, the Duval County school system created a special year-long class for all freshmen in the district. Kids like Andrew Jackson 9th grader Kyle Bradford who started high school this year burdened by his best friend’s betrayal right at the end of 8th grade.
"So he got mad at me one day and just went all out telling everybody almost everything that I told him. And so I felt like high school was going to be like that all the time. You can trust no one. You tell somebody one thing and they’re going tell everybody and everybody's going to laugh at you and hurt you and taunt you all the time,” Bradford said.
Luckily for Bradford there’s teacher Lawrence Nelson.
Nelson teaches a course called "S.O.S. Transition."
"S-O-S stands for strengthening our students. It’s setting them up to transition from middle to high school," he said.
One way Nelson tries to make his students stronger is by telling them stories from his own high school days.
“Every teacher always told me: 'Lawrence, you could do so much better if you apply yourself.' I’m like, apply what?”
Apply, Nelson tells his students, means try. And trying, he says, is the number one requirement in his class.
Take the daily warm-up exercise. Last Friday, Nelson held his class in the auditorium; the warm-up exercise was to make a human aisle. He could have just said make two lines across from each other, but that’s not Nelson’s style.
“I require them to think. All the time. What do you think I mean? The last class that came in, they started reading it, they started looking at it and then, before I knew it, there’s a human aisle right there, in the aisle,” he said.
Next, he had them playing jump rope with something that looked like a thick, heavy, bright crimson cable.
“But they don’t know that the rope is life. It’s constantly going around you and you have to jump over it to get through it. And so it’s always about what you’re going to do about the situation.”
To help them navigate the world of high school and beyond, Nelson teaches his 9th graders about goal-setting, time-management, conflict-resolution and leadership.
Only a month into the new school year, it seems to be working. For one thing, says Principal Michele Floyd-Hatcher, a lot of Nelson’s 9th graders at Andrew Jackson have started to think long term.
“I hear him talk to them about careers and what they want to do and so they’ll come in to guidance now and ask questions about the courses they’re taking and if there are other courses they should be in.”
But to think long-term, one has to survive short-term, something that, until Nelson’s class, was proving extremely difficult for 15-year old Kyle Bradford.
“And I’m sitting in the corner, in the back of every class and I’m afraid if I say one word to anybody, I’m done for, you know."
And then, Bradford says, he got to Mister Nelson’s class.
“He talked about us being scared and how it’s not that easy to go from middle school to high school and I’m like, not at all and he was like you don’t have to worry and I’m like what do you mean I don’t have to worry and he just like walked us through it and just how easy it is to be comfortable around everybody.”
Comfortable enough to jump a bright red rope on an auditorium stage with 30 other kids.
89.9 WJCT is participating in the American Graduate project supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The goal of American Graduate is to reverse the national drop out crisis by identifying and then addressing the factors that cause students to leave school early.