New freshman experience at SVHS
Teams tackle A-to-G requirements
First of two parts
Teachers frequently compare freshmen students to puppies – they have boundless energy and are in need of serious training in order to adjust to the rigor of high school.
Countless studies show that success in the ninth grade is of critical importance in terms of graduation rates and college and career readiness.
That’s one reason why, when the doors to Sonoma Valley High School opened last August, incoming freshman encountered a completely redesigned freshman experience. While the school had tried other models in the past, the changes this year are specifically designed to give entering students the best possible chance at succeeding at the school’s new mandatory college prep program.
Starting with this year’s freshman crop, the class of 2015, each of the 347 students is enrolled in, and will hopefully pass, “A-to-G requirements” – the basic coursework required for admission to the University of California system.
“This ensures that all of our students are college and career ready,” explained Principal Dino Battaglini. “Whether they choose to enter the work force after graduation or go on to a two- or four-year college, they have every option available to them.”
The 15 “A-to-G” classes cross seven subject areas and must be taken over the course of the four years of high school. This change is a significant one that was debated at length last year. Battaglini explained the changes in a letter to parents and in a series of community information meetings. All freshman students develop a four-year course of action that lays out their core requirements while still giving them the freedom to select their elective courses, such as forensics, newspaper, leadership, photography, film and others.
The thinking behind the increased focus on college prep is two-fold: with the economy such as it is, the more education they have, the better their chances of finding employment. And, Sonoma students are capable of rising to the challenge of higher expectations. What remains to be seen is if the drop-out rate at SVHS, currently hovering around 7 percent, will increase as a result.
In order to better support the students encountering these new higher expectations, a completely different support system and learning environment for freshman has been developed. New this year are freshman teams – smaller learning communities providing students with greater access to a specific group of dedicated team teachers who advise and provide academic support four days a week, for 50 minutes. These teachers are responsible for the success of their team of students and follow their progress closely.
School board trustee Dan Gustafson is the parent of a freshman at the high school. “As a boardmember, I had heard a lot of good things about small learning communities. As a freshman parent, I have seen it unfold up close and the transition for my son socially and academically could not have been better. My son feels really connected to his team, and I am pleased by how well his teachers know him already.”
The freshman class is divided into three groups of approximately 110 students, each named after iconic mountains – Fuji, Mauna Kea and Olympus. Students in each team share the same class schedule and the same core teachers for English, math, science and PE. The assignments to each team are random. The advanced students are not grouped together, and each team has an honors English section. If you ask a freshman which team is best, you can almost guarantee they will tell you that their team is best, and exactly why they think so. Surprisingly, Battaglini noted that there have been no requests for team changes, except for a handful made necessary because of scheduling.
The new freshman seminar, 50 minutes, four times a week, and mandatory for all freshman, is used by most teams as a study skills and study hall period, where students can get help in the classes they are finding most challenging. Each team is given autonomy to use the seminar time the way that makes the most sense for their students.
Fuji, for example, has been the most innovative in their use of the seminar, assigning cross-curricular projects, such as the business plan developed by each student in the first semester. Fuji PE teacher Dennis Housman was on the design team that researched and planned the freshman teams. He visited some of the many high schools that have converted to the small learning group model and borrowed some of their best practices for Sonoma Valley High’s design process.
While initially skeptical of what could have been perceived as just another scheduling change, most freshman team teachers give the change rave reviews. Olympus team teacher Danielle Lovejoy cites a greater sense of job satisfaction this year. “As a team, we have the chance to follow one group of students closely, to confer with each other and to really affect the lives of these freshman. I love coming into school each morning, having the chance to collaborate and to know these kids inside and out.”
Added Olympus team teacher Jacqueline Levy, “We set aside time to talk about each student, and if a student is struggling we address it right away, sometimes even bringing their parent in. This is the most effective model I’ve seen for intervention since I started teaching. And I honestly think the collaboration has enabled me to become a better teacher and made teaching more rewarding and fulfilling for me.”
The Olympus team also mentioned that the freshman team model has improved the way Sonoma Valley High serves its students who need special services. They explained that these students are balanced among the teams, and modifications and student progress are easier to track.
All freshman now take freshman English (honors or college prep); earth science or lab bio; Spanish (1-4); math (algebra 1 or 2 or geometry); and living skills/geography (one semester each), along with an elective of their choosing.
The other significant curriculum change this year is that all ninth graders are placed into algebra or higher. The school no longer offers pre-algebra, in keeping with the state of California’s mandate that all eighth graders should be ready to take algebra in ninth grade. To prepare for this, the district arranged for algebra boot camp programs last summer and a variety of free math tutoring options are available at Sonoma Valley High and at the Boys & Girls Club.
To date, the rate of freshman students receiving As, Bs, and Cs this fall in the new, more rigorous required curriculum is 78 percent. Last year, the rate was 52 percent for students receiving all As, Bs and Cs in a wider variety of course levels.
“While it still has room for improvement, this is a significant accomplishment for our students and our math teachers,” said Battaglini. The primary objection to the change, voiced by teachers and parents last year, was that the rate of Ds and Fs would rise significantly.
All freshman students must also take a one-semester course in living skills, that includes aptitude testing, study skills, note-taking, sex education and more. For the other semester, Sonoma Valley High has replaced the previous technology (keyboarding) course requirement with geography, as per a request from Sonoma Valley High teachers. Freshman Connor Magnani just completed his semester of geography and said, “I really liked it. We studied current events, like gas prices, and how the world is changing because of these things.”
While early reviews of the team environment seem uniformly positive, some parents and students complained about scheduling challenges and a more restricted course selection. Today, however, it is hard to find a student or parent who isn’t pleased with the experience to date. Freshman parent Tracy Walthard, herself a teacher outside the district, reported that, “The team experience has been instrumental in our daughter’s successful transition to high school. Not only does the entire team know the students, from multiple perspectives, but the freshman seminar allows for additional instruction in any subject in which a student may be struggling. We were nervous about the transition to a large school. We have found that our daughter is receiving individual attention from a group of teachers that is passionate about her success.”