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In fall 2010, Willow Run will introduce the Freshman Flyer Academy, a new program aimed at helping students transition from eighth grade to high school.
The objective of the program is to improve academic success, attendance and retention rates, and discipline while decreasing the number of failed classes.
All Willow Run ninth graders will take part in the new academy, which will include restructuring classes so that all the ninth graders have the same teachers for their core classes and placing the students in teams so they are with the same students most of the day. They will also be housed in a different wing of the high school for their core classes, but will mix with other grades for their electives.
Kelly Webb, principal of the Willow Run Secondary Complex that houses seventh through ninth graders, said that the transition into high school can be stressful for students. She said the stresses socially and academically can be detrimental to their overall high school achievement.
“All of the research that we have shows that this is one of the highest anxiety and highest stresses of any adolescent's life,” Webb said.
According to data provided by program coordinators, 52 out of 109 Willow Run freshmen failed one or more first semester classes in the 2009-2010 school year, and 69 of those same 109 freshmen had one referral.
“The research all across the country shows us that if a student falls behind in their core academic areas in their freshman year, they greatly increase their chances of not graduating from high school with their cohorts after four years,” Webb said during a dinner for eighth graders and their parents on Thursday evening.
“Ninth grade is a hard time in a young person's life,” said Pat Bobo, the grandmother of a future freshman at Willow Run. “I like the idea that they're separated more from the 12th through 10th graders because I think they shouldn't be mixed in with them as much as they used to be. They're all at a different place in their lives. It'll give them a time without a lot of pressure.”
Ninth graders will also be taught daily “character education” lessons, which will focus on life skills such as responsibility, accountability, self-respect, decision making and other traits that will help improve interaction and cooperation with others.
“I think it's a good idea,” said April Griffin, a Willow Run parent who has an eighth grade son who will enter high school next year. “The way I'm perceiving it is they're teaching them basic manners.”
A University of Dayton study that looked at the effectiveness of this character education program showed marked improvement in student behavior, significantly lower numbers of suspensions, better scores on standardized tests, lower absentee rates and higher teacher morale.
Incoming freshmen will also get the guidance of a junior or senior student who will help them acclimate to their new school and check in with them academically from time to time. These upper class students will be known as Link Crew members and will get several days of training this summer to prepare them for the task.
“Not only does Link Crew allow for a smooth transition for eighth to ninth graders, but then you've got three of your four grade levels at the high school involved,” Webb said.
The academy will incorporate an optional two-week summer camp in August for freshmen. The camp will include team building activities with peers, trips to area college campuses and will conclude with a family barbecue so parents can get familiar with the student's teachers.
One contentious element of the academy is the elevated dress code that may be implemented for all students between seventh and twelfth grades. If approved by the school board, the dress code will mean all students wear black, khaki or blue pants and a solid colored polo shirt. No denim will be allowed.
Webb presented pros and cons of the new dress code to the board last on May 6. She said removing the students' focus on clothes increases their attention and improves classroom safety.
“When you don't have a dress code, or an elevated dress code, you spend a lot of your time dealing with that,” Webb said.
She also said there are some detractors to a dress code, like reducing the students responsibility in making mature decisions about what to wear and restricting their freedom of expression. However, she said the pros greatly outweighed the cons.
“I think it's going to hurt economically, but it's a good idea,” Griffin said.
“I don't like it,” said Griffin's son, 13-year-old Michael, who will be a Willow Run freshman in the fall. “It's just not my style. I don't like to wear clothes like that.”
But Michael Griffin does like the idea of the program overall. His mother is concerned he is not ready for high school, and he said he thinks the academy may help him academically.
“It'll be better for me,” he said. “It'll help me with my work.”