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Back to School: A Freshman Survival Guide

by Patricia K. Dove
High school can be the best four years of your life, filled with new friends, self-discovery and lasting memories. But the transition from middle school to high school, on the other hand, is among the most terrifying, filled with self-doubt, uncertainty, nightmares of getting lost in endless corridors and worries about fitting in with older children.

“I’m apprehensive going into it, but I’m more excited than nervous,” says Molly Mendelson, 14, of Voorhees, who is about to enter ninth grade at Eastern Regional High School. She notes that most of her friends feel the same way. “Everybody’s basically just excited. A lot of the people I’ve talked to about it are very ready to start school.”

Frank Weckerly, guidance counselor for Haddon Heights High School, says that’s to be expected. “Eighth-grade students are both excited and concerned about going to high school.

They look forward to more freedom, choices and the opportunity to participate in more extracurricular activities and the chance to develop friendships,” Weckerly says.

“However, they also admit to being nervous and scared about other students teasing them, getting lost in a larger facility and even getting bad grades.” The key to navigating that transition, experts say, is proper planning, a strong support system and academic preparedness.

Tip No. 1: Take a look around
Despite planning over the summer, in between tackling her summer reading list, Mendelson says she’s still concerned about navigating her way through the much larger school.

Students can assuage those concerns by finding out when the high school is open, giving themselves a tour and figuring out where their classrooms will be. It’s a simple step that can eliminate many of the first-day jitters. “If middle school students are familiar with the high school facility, where they can go for help and have family involved, transitioning is easier,” says Weckerly. “Involvement in extracurricular activities always helps too.”

Get a map of the campus or school building and draw out routes between each classroom. Find out where your child’s locker is in relation to classes. Have him or her practice opening the combination and opening the lock several times, until comfortable enough to do it quickly, Weckerly suggests.

Tip No. 2: Ask for help
Mendelson reached out to her older siblings for advice about their experiences, which was both “informative and very helpful.” Students can also familiarize themselves with teachers, counselors, coaches and anyone else who can help them with their particular needs. A guidance counselor will be able to tell parents and students what to expect in certain classes, answer questions and provide a list of what supplies your student will need before the first day of class, Weckerly says.

Some schools may also offer freshman orientations, an ideal way to familiarize the student with the school and provide an opportunity to meet fellow freshmen.

Tip No. 3: Prepare academically
Along with getting to know trustworthy teachers and guidance counselors, finding additional help as needed can go a long way in jumpstarting a successful school year.

“Students need to be at or above grade level in their subjects,” says Steve Quimby, owner of the Tutoring Center in Voorhees, which offers private instruction and learning programs for kids in kindergarten through grade 12. “If they’re behind grade level coming out of middle school, it can be a disaster waiting to happen.”

High school introduces new and more challenging courses in science, math, language and elective subjects. “All these forces come into play all at once: it can be extremely stressful,” Quimby says.

Creating good study habits and homework rituals early on can help a new student shift to more difficult coursework with ease. Many parents get tutors for their children to assist in a difficult subject, but simple guidance to create good study habits and organizational skills can be just as helpful. Tutors provide a sense of encouragement and satisfaction during individualized lessons, giving students a boost in their self confidence as lessons come more easily.

At Mathnasium in Washington Township, the staff recommends preparation over the summer, to jump start the learning process. “We have many students come over the summer preparing for the fall, so when they walk into the door it’s not a foreign language,” says Bob D’Orazio, owner of the Washington Township Mathnasium, which offers summer preview lessons on geometry, algebra and more.

Their approach is all about getting a student to catch up with the current skill levels, to keep up and then to get ahead. For students to progress, they should have dedicated study or extra lesson time two to three times per week—and the earlier the better. “Generally the first couple weeks are review anyway. So if they’re getting outside help, once new topics are eventually introduced, they’ll be confident and comfortable,” he says. “It’s never too late, even if somebody started right now. Getting some help outside of the classroom can do wonders.”

Huntington Learning Center, which has branches in Cherry Hill and Turnersville, uses a six-step tutoring process that begins with a student’s academic evaluation, and includes one-on- one attention from tutoring professionals. “We build a personalized learning program for your child based on his or her individual strengths and needs, which we identify using our in-depth academic evaluation,” explains director Richard Bernstein, now in his 16th year with Huntington.

“Our center helps students gain confidence and become motivated to do better in school,” Bernstein adds. “We do that by getting to the root of their academic needs and building the skills and strategies necessary to achieve at grade level, or on a particular exam.”

Tip No. 4: Look beyond the classroom
Even those kids who are successful academically face challenges, which can include finding their niche in social groups and extracurriculars.

Mendelson, an English and history buff, plans to juggle her scholarly pursuits with a multitude of creative activities, too. “I like singing, acting and dancing,” she says. “There’s a theater program and a cheer squad at Eastern, so I think I’ll be able to follow those interests now.”

Seizing upon such budding interests is vital, educators say. “It is important for kids to get involved in extracurricular activities, because it builds friendships and promotes a sense of belonging, which in turn promotes self confidence,” said Kim Farmer, owner and instructor at Nancy Mulford Dance Studio in Mount Ephraim.

To branch out at the new school, freshmen might try an activity they’ve never done before, whether it’s joining a sports team, an after-school club or an art class. “Being involved in dance promotes physical wellbeing, teamwork, friendships, confidence, poise and time management,” says Farmer. “Dancing in front of people also makes a child less afraid to speak in front of a crowd. All of this makes for a more confident student and well-rounded person.”

Champions United Gymnastics Academy in Cherry Hill offers a comprehensive package of afterschool programs, from basic to competitive gymnastics or tumbling lessons for aspiring cheerleaders. “Basically, it is about developing strength and preparation. Gymnastics is a natural part of development as children. The skills we learn in gymnastics stay with us through life and help us achieve our goals,” says Mike Krivocheia, manager.

Tip No. 5: Start at home
Whatever preparations or planning a family does together, the high school experience can still seem like a looming giant. Simple things parents do can make a difference. So help your child stay prepared by packing a backpack with all necessary supplies before the first day, including notebooks, gym clothes and extra writing utensils. Discuss the best way to keep a locker, cubby or desk organized, so he or she can grab supplies easily between classes.

But really, it’s not so much the new school, but the change that’s daunting, says Ron Greenberg, director and teacher at Marlton’s Center for Education. He recommends parents take a hands-on approach, emphasizing learning within the home and bringing students out into the world. “Talk to them. Listen to them. Get them off the computer games. Travel, give them opportunities to experience the world,” says Greenberg. He says exposing children to different experiences allows them to adapt more easily to change, making major transitions more positive. Whatever it takes to get through those school doors in September, high school is all about exploring, experiencing new situations, gaining knowledge and discovering what you love, inside the classroom and out. So relax!

Study Habits

When students transition from middle school to high school, coursework can become noticeably more rigorous. That’s one reason that structure is the key to succeeding academically in high school, experts say. For example, even computer time must be approached in a structured fashion, says Ron Greenberg of the Center for Education. “If a student is going to go on the computer, they should utilize it in an academic sense first, and a personal sense second,” he says. Take an hour each week and use the computer for learning, including research and online search skills, rather than going on Facebook.

Just because tonight’s homework seems easy, that doesn’t mean you can turn off your brain for the night. “It’s not just about the length of time you study; it’s about the quality of the time,” says Nick Italiano, director of institutional advancement at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School. He suggests spending at least a half-hour each day reviewing what you’ve gone over in each class, in addition to doing whatever is required as homework. Reviewing each day’s class work can enable you to delve deeper into the topics that you don’t understand. “You can’t necessarily study for a big test the night before, on the bus, or in homeroom; you’ve got to put more time into studying now,” Italiano says.

Designate specific areas in the home for homework and studying, Greenberg suggests. Some possibilities include the kitchen or dining room table, or a desk in a room with a comfortable chair and few distractions.

Similarly, designating a specific time as homework time can also be helpful. The No. 1 tip the teachers and staff at Bishop Eustace recommend: get comfortable using a calendar. Use a daily or weekly planner book, as well as a calendar at home, to lay out responsibilities, club meetings, homework, tests and project deadlines. “We tell students to plan out the day and work schedule as much as they possibly can, to write everything down, and make sure they know when all deadlines are,” Italiano says.

Back to School Resource Guide

It’s important for kids to honor their commitments. Joining that Spanish club seemed great in theory. It may be difficult, but commitment builds confidence and teaches principles beyond the classroom. A conscious choice breeds character.
(856) 983-8811

“Students have the greatest opportunity to develop strength, body awareness, coordination, flexibility, socialization, self-esteem and love for the sport while developing healthy habits or life.”
Mount Laurel
(609) 864-6810

Every child should have the experience to be onstage. It instills a great sense of self esteem and a feeling that they can conquer most fears.

Our students have fun with self expression while learning to understand the discipline of all dance and appreciating the art. The point is to teach them to enjoy what they’re doing and feel proud of their accomplishments.
Cherry Hill
(856) 795-9255

“Allow your child to be inspired, to dream, create and soar ... all while making lots of new friends in their fun-filled class!”
(856) 227-9414

Four Seasons Children’s Center serves children ages 0-7. Four Seasons Children’s Center in Mount Laurel offers your child lots of learning, good friends and good, healthy fun. Enroll your child now for an enriching and exciting school year.
Mount Laurel
(856) 866-0444

Want the best for your child? So do we! At Haddonfield Friends School our students strive for and achieve their personal best. In addition to strong academics, we provide a curriculum designed to develop critical and creative thinkers. Stop by for our Tuesday Tours or call to schedule a time to for a personal tour.
(856) 429-6786

Every 12 minutes, a parent calls Huntington Learning Center to get the attention and results they can’t get anywhere else. The success of our program lies in the one-to-one attention we devote to every student and the expertise of our caring, certified tutors.
Cherry Hill
(856) 751-1848
(856) 227-0033

When it comes to quality education, the Katz JCC knows best. The Sari Isdaner Early Childhood Center at the Katz JCC offers the highest quality of care for children as young as 6 weeks to an accredited kindergarten program. Our NAEYC accredited program is designed to develop the whole child: socially, intellectually, emotionally and physically. Call now for enrollment.
Cherry Hill
(856) 424-4444

Children enjoy the structure and discipline that’s presented to them in such a way that they have no idea they’re learning because of the fun they’re having.
(856) 346-4140

The Malvern School offers year round early childhood educational programs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for Infants, Toddlers, Preschool, Pre-Kindergarten and School Age children. Our curriculum is designed to meet or exceed the highest standards of excellence in Early Childhood Education.
(609) 654-4500
(856) 489-4440
(856) 218-2300

Every day, students around the world attend Mathnasium learning centers to boost their math skills. Our goal is to significantly increase your child’s math skills, understanding of math concepts, and overall school performance, while building confidence and forging a positive attitude toward the subject.
Cherry Hill
(856) 874-0050

Moorestown Friends School is a community rooted in Quaker values and dedicated to the pursuit of educational excellence for a diverse student body within an academically rigorous and balanced program emphasizing personal, ethical and spiritual growth.
(856) 235-2900

The Moorestown Theater Company, Inc., is a nonprofit organization, “where families have fu performing musical theater together.” MTC is a great place to learn to refine your skills or to learn a new art form! Check out our upcoming studio classes and call us at with any questions.
(856) 778-8357

The thrill to see your child’s face when they perform on the stage is like nothing else. We not only fulfill dreams for our students but give them the taste of accomplishment and help to build their strength as assets to their community.
Mount Ephraim
(856) 931-1830

“We are very proud of this new after-school learning center but we’re most excited about the potential it represents for the residents of this community. We have done something important that will improve children’s lives for years to come.”
(856) 906-7713

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 6 (August, 2011).
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