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How to Tackle School Transitions

Effectively preparing students at every level for the next step in their educational journey.
Principal Supplement: After-school Learning
January/February 2018

Students face unique challenges when transitioning from pre-K to elementary school, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school. What are the best ways to overcome these challenges? How can partnerships be formed with parents and the community? How can principals prepare their teachers for these integral stages in students’ lives? For this roundtable discussion, we convened experts who ensure students are as prepared as possible to move forward throughout their academic and social-emotional journeys: Kim Templeman, principal of Central Oak Elementary School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Brian Partin, principal of Ross N. Robinson Middle School in Kingsport, Tennessee; and Mark Shanoff, principal of Edgewater High School, Orlando, Florida.

Q. What are the most effective ways of securing school and family partnerships to ensure a smooth transition for students between grade levels?

Shanoff: I actually think having a strong collaborative structure between the different schools within a particular feeder pattern is very, very important, because families need to feel connected to every school community of which their child is going to be a part. As far as my feeder pattern goes, we actually talk quite a bit at the high school level about what types of after-school programs or summer programs would be effective. And then I can contribute to the middle school, and the elementary schools can contribute to the middle schools’ decision-making, and then those two groups can participate in any decisions that I make about what I’m going to use. The idea is that we’re creating a very collaborative structure as students move from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade.

Q. What about the transition from pre-K to kindergarten?

Templeman: Our pre-K and kindergarten teachers work closely in terms of expectations of mastery, what our kindergarten teachers would like them to come in with, and then our pre-K teachers work very closely with the families because it’s their first experience in school. Ours is a smaller urban district in the middle of Oklahoma City, but it’s an independent school district. It’s very much a community, so we have lots of families that we’ve had their parents, their grandparents, their cousins, so that helps.

Partin: I would say, also, we are very intentional about what we’re doing, and so we have preview days, where students and parents are coming over and visiting the schools, at all levels, and transition meetings, where high school teachers are coming down to the middle school, and the middle school teachers are going down to the elementary school and the pre-K and the kindergarten teams are meeting together.

Q. What steps should be taken to not only ensure academic confidence, but also social-emotional confidence during these transitional phases?

Templeman: I would say we spend a good deal of time in our collaborative work, our PLC with kinder and pre-K, working on social-emotional. At that level in the developmental process, that often will interfere with the academic process, if it’s not where it should be. So, many times we have to focus on getting that right before we can focus more on the academic. We have to work with parents to help them—maybe it’s their first child and their first experience in school—they’re not sure why their child is not adapting or why they’re crying or why they are not sitting still. It’s definitely a training process for all involved. Because if you get that right, then the academics aspect is much easier.

Partin: We’ve developed a jump-start program. It’s a three-day program where students will come in and meet with the teachers. Former sixth-grade students who are going into seventh will come in and answer questions. We also do a lot of activities with the incoming students to get them connected with a new student population because they are coming from a less-than-a-hundred-student group to a 300- to 325-member class.

Shanoff: I’ve had the pleasure of being a principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and the transitions and the activities that my fellow participants on this call refer to are very, very effective. What I’ve found is that when we get to high school, that immersion into high school is actually quite difficult for what are essentially just eighth-grade students now entering a campus that has thousands of students. We do bring our freshmen on campus a little bit early, to give them that exposure to the different clubs and sports that they can immerse themselves in, so then they can go ahead and make those connections ahead of time.

The other thing that I would say about the social-emotional piece versus the academic piece: Parents and families will regard you as effective when they hear your academic plans. They will trust you, though, when they know that you are tending to their child’s social-emotional needs. That is much more powerful than the academic piece.

Going the Distance

We all know introduction nights and school tours can be great ways to get students acclimated to their new environments, but here are some “outside-the-box” ideas that will also serve you well:

  • Host a Tech Night. Technology plays a critical role at any level, and your incoming students will benefit from familiarizing themselves with the different formats and platforms they will be exposed to when they start school. This is especially critical for 1:1 districts. According to Partin, “We also educate parents on understanding the different platforms so they can stay in touch with our athletic programs and schools. That way they know how to access that information to monitor their child’s progress, how to access their teacher’s team, etc.”
  • Don’t Be a Stranger. Take some time to visit students in their current school so you’re a familiar face when the time comes for them to join yours. Shanoff explains, “I go over to the middle schools, walk around, and visit the classrooms, so then the students are very familiar with their next principal, but on their territory, on their ground.”
  • Get Social. Chances are, your incoming students will be all too familiar with social media. Use it! Send out videos, pictures, or other messages that will allow students to acquaint themselves with their new school culture, environment, and the people they’re going to be interacting with.
  • Mix It Up. After-school and summer programs are wonderfully unique opportunities for your incoming students and your current students to mingle. “This allows students to have some preliminary relationship-building time prior to the school year, and also do the types of activities that will be expected of them at a higher level,” says Templeman.

Q. In this time that you’re spending preparing students, what role do summer learning and after-school programming play?

Templeman: In our summer program we have a rotation schedule for all grades, but with the middle schoolers we do different types of things. For example, we do some college-bound activities where we look at colleges and we even take the students on a college campus visit. We took them this summer to the State Capitol because our legislature was still in session. Prior to going down there, we had them do some background work on their representatives; we took them down there and we did some meet-and-greet; we had them dress appropriately. Those are things that we plan for our middle schoolers, and so including the fifth-graders in on that, it just gives them a different view of school than what they’re used to. There’s more freedom in the secondary level than they have in elementary, but with freedom come responsibilities, so they have to learn to manage themselves in those types of situations.

Partin: So, I mentioned the jump-start program that we do. I would say probably about 80 percent of the students will participate. We also have a very large performing arts department, and many of the incoming sixth-graders participate in either our orchestra or band program, so we’ve started some summer combined band opportunities as well, where incoming students are getting to meet the band director. They’ll be able to come in and start working, they’ll have some prep classes, learning some of those expectations.

Our string camp is an area where we pull in a lot of partnerships that really align nicely with the science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math emphasis that we have during the summer programming. We are working to extend those opportunities, work with community partnerships, give those kids that are participating in that program really hands-on experiences that are highly engaging and motivating for them. So, even as we’re looking into the transition from elementary to middle, our high school programs are offering opportunities for students who have never taken an AP course to get a jump-start on that. A lot of students are starting to take advantage of those types of opportunities during the summer.

Shanoff: At the high school level, when we’re transitioning our kids from out of eighth grade up, there are a few different lanes that we have in terms of jump-start activities. We’ve got a jump-start for students who are second-language learners. We have a jump-start program for students who are special needs that maybe aren’t necessarily on an extended school year within their IEP, but it would benefit them to come in and learn some of the organizational techniques that would help them be successful in high school. That’s more of a study-skills track than it is anything else. And then, we, too, also have a step up to AP.

Q. How can principals ensure their staff is knowledgeable and reassuring about what is to come, rather than using the new environment as a “threat” or misplaced motivational tool?

Templeman: I handpicked my fifth-grade team for that very reason, that the instructional strategy, the classroom styles, would be more conducive to that transition for the students, and we’ve gone to a couple of conferences that address middle-level learning styles, just brain research and that sort of thing, so I’ve tried to build their capacity. Then, one of our goals is to create multiple leadership opportunities for our fifth-grade students that teach them how to be leaders, to be self-sufficient, to take ownership in their building, in their school. My goal from an elementary standpoint is to build those students up as much as I can, as strong as I can, as healthy as I can, before I send them over there.

Partin: First of all, I think the hiring process and placement process of teachers is always very critical. Making sure that you have people, especially in those transition years, in place that will support the transition for those students is extremely important. So, you have to have a balance of someone who’s going to be there to nurture them through that process and understand that it can be somewhat difficult, and also someone who is willing to work with the parents and communicate.

I’m blessed to have a team that was already in place that works really well with our students, and their dedication to come in on their own time to work and to meet those students during the jump-start program really helped get that off to a good start.

In addition, our school counselors work exceptionally well at both the front end and tail end for us in the eighth grade in helping both of those transition periods run very smoothly. They also coordinate what we consider our social-emotional learning, our SEL committee work, in making sure that we’re being very intentional about what we’re doing to touch every child and make sure that we’re connecting with every student in some way.

Shanoff: For us, I would definitely say that our ninth-grade English professional learning community is probably our strongest collaboration group at my high school, simply because, to me, they seem to understand and be more sensitive to the needs of incoming freshmen than, say, folks who may be teaching sophomores or juniors or even seniors. I actually look at that transition out of high school and look at the teachers of our seniors as really the ones who are either going to make or break a student graduating on time or not. So, we actually have to do quite a bit in terms of big-picture conversations with our teachers at the 12th-grade level because there’s an assumption that our students who get to 12th grade should be ready for college or ready for some sort of post-secondary activity. Well, at the end of the day, when the students are coming in as incoming seniors, they’re really just old juniors, and they’re not really college-ready yet. So, it’s reminding them that our students still need to get to the finish line, and we still need to support them in getting to the finish line. All of our seniors by the end of the first quarter have to have a post-secondary plan already established so they will look at high school graduation as not the end, but the beginning. 

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