A post from the Tang Action Research Program*

Try to imagine or remember what it feels like to be a middle school student grappling with the complexities of transitioning to a new division or a new school. Leaving behind what has been familiar to step into a new environment can feel overwhelming — there are new teachers, new norms, new expectations, new communities. These changes can complicate the lives of thirteen-year-olds in ways that might elude us, their educators.

My name is Will Miller and in 2019, my colleague Bee Stribling and I arrived at Moorestown Friends School to serve in our respective divisions as deans of students. Shortly after our arrival, we saw COVID-19 transform the world, which added another layer of complexity to the educational territories that we call schools.

From where Bee and I sit, we often see students navigating a wide array of obstacles during their first year. For example, in middle school, students often have a relatively small and familiar group of classmates that they have known for several years; but as they enter upper school (grades 9 – 12) they can suddenly find themselves lost amongst hundreds of new faces. They may find it difficult to maintain their familiar relationships while also establishing new ones. This shift to a larger and more diverse community is not discrete or linear. In fact, it can be quite dynamic. As students are introduced to more teachers, they are required to discern and adjust to an increasing variety of norms and classroom expectations which are sometimes very different from those they had become accustomed to in their middle school years.

Academic rigor is one such expectation which is, for most students, significantly heightened in upper school. The upper school curriculum is typically more challenging and demanding than that of middle school, and therein lies further expectations that students be more self-directed and independent in their learning. This can be a significant pivot point for some students, especially for those who may have relied heavily on structure and support from their teachers in middle school. Bee and I recognized that this particular shift challenged many students, especially as the burden of this shift was compounded and by the difficulty of other simultaneous shifts.

Bee and I have recognized the importance of an orientation program at the start of the year to help new students transition as seamlessly as possible into upper school. Each September, we run a program which introduces newcomers to important resources in a clear and accessible way. We provide information that we believe will help students feel more prepared and confident as they enter their new community on day one.

As deans, Bee and I lead the transition process from middle school to upper school at Moorestown Friends School. These students comprise about 70 percent of our 9th- grade class; the other 30% come from other middle schools. As Bee and I coordinate support for students who are shifting from our middle to upper schools, our observations of their challenges throughout 9th grade have raised the question: can we improve the ways in which we support these students in their transition? To answer this question, we set out to identify the factors in our students’ school lives that help them adjust and integrate into the upper school (i.e. the underlying drivers for successful transitions), and check whether our school’s support systems are actually working as we intended.

With these learning goals in mind, Bee and I began interviewing the current 9th- and 10th-grade students who had come from our middle school division. We conducted this survey at the end of January, so the current 9th graders were reflecting on their first 4 months of upper school and 10th graders were looking back on their whole first year. This sampling, we hoped, would allow us to pick up supportive factors that work more gradually or later in the 9th-grade year. Instead of relying on a mass survey, we decided to get close to these students through empathy interviews. After some initial scale questions about particular programs that are explicitly intended to support their transition, we asked open-ended questions to capture unforeseen factors impacting their transition experience.

Their answers surprised us.

First, on a 5‑point scale, students rated the New Student Orientation event at a 2.5 in terms of helpfulness in their transition. This neutral response stung our pride, as we are the organizers, but we felt motivated to unpack their responses to this program more deeply.

Curiously, despite the disappointing review of our orientation, students reflected positively about their transitions overall, and described them as eventually successful. A tenth grader commented, Overall my transition has been really successful and fun,” and another said, My transition was positive in terms of student life.” When asked about ways to improve orientation, a ninth grader said, Honestly I don’t remember much about it but I felt pretty well prepared for high school.” So students were transitioning successfully, but not because of our orientation. So what, or who, was helping them overcome the big challenges of adaptation, recalibration, and adjustment required for success in upper school?

This sense of belonging was not happening at New Student Orientation. Many of these events and processes that did aid their transition happened asynchronously and well after the first days of school.

So how can we use this research to improve the transition to upper school? This spring, Bee and I are working with advisors and student leadership to design next year’s orientation so that it will be more participatory and action-oriented. We aim to increase the number of opportunities for students to contribute and be seen, so that students start developing relationships and a sense of belonging from their first days of upper school. We believe that a sense of belonging is likely to be a critical factor in new students’ integration into the upper school community, which in turn supports their ability to find and navigate resources, learn and adjust to new expectations, and develop confidence in their new learning environment. If we succeed in accelerating their development of belonging during orientation, then students will be better equipped to navigate the challenges of this difficult transition into upper school and we should see more rapid adaptation and success in the 9th-grade year.

*Bee Stribling and Will Miller are participants in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development.

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