In the beginning, there is circle time. School is warm and maternal. If school had a human face, the elementary face would be a fairy godmother.
The face of middle school is that of a younger woman, who might be wearing a miniskirt. Gone are the days of earning gold stars on a chart. This face is less likely to pick up after the student, and is more likely to let him learn the consequences of forgetting his calculator.
Thus begins a gradual shift from the passive learner of the younger years to the truly independent high school senior. Between these two stages lie many pitfalls.
Counselor James Jones understands the hip image that middle school carries. As a seventh-grade counselor in Edmonds, he regularly visits the feeder elementary schools and talks to sixth-graders during the spring before they enter College Place Middle School. He sees on their faces some worries about stretching to accept the early morning classes, the six different teachers per day and the separation from their best buddies.
But he and his colleague, Jeanette Jones of Washington Middle School in Seattle, both want parents and guardians to realize staff members are still nurturing -- even without fairy godmother wings. Jeanette Jones, who is not related to James, wants parents to keep communicating with the school, despite the fact there isn't the single teacher in charge of your child's whole day.
"We like cookies," she jokes. "We like treats. We like apples. We like all that stuff, too." Jones, whose title is Sixth Grade Administrator, has spent almost 25 years watching thousands of students enter Washington as sixth-graders, and she thinks parents -- and those grandparents and guardians who are acting as parents -- often make mistakes. When their children seem independent, adults in their lives sit back and assume the student has things covered. Parents stop writing notes to the teacher, stop driving for field trips and stop being involved.
"When (your children) tell you that they don't have any homework," she explains, "you have to have some way to check that out." One way to address the dilemma: Talk to other parents. She recommends that adults get in the building at least once to write down the names and phone numbers of parents or guardians of students in their child's core classes.
When it comes time for students to make a second transition, from middle to high school, much of the same connection advice applies. Freshmen in high school are usually not well prepared to meet the organizational challenge, explains Susan La Rosa, head counselor at Bellevue High School. They get behind and they sometimes stay behind, but they need their parent's or guardian's help more than ever.
What throws many students is learning how to manage time. When you shake up the fragile confidence of the freshmen, they often come to the wrong conclusion. They decide they aren't good at math or aren't good at history. What they truly aren't good at is organizing their time, taking notes and estimating how long it will take to complete a project. It is important for their adults to believe in them and see them through temporary setbacks, and get them help.
"They are intellectually able but their maturity level has not caught up to the expectations of high school," La Rosa explains. Over the past few years, Bellevue's staff decided to redesign some systems to help steer freshmen through the rapids of their first year.
Every classroom now has a poster with a three-step mantra: "Be on time. Check your agenda. Write down your homework." Volunteer students offer tutoring for anyone who wants it. LaRosa says that they have "eliminated the stigma of getting tutored."
Parents need to be involved enough in the school to know what help is available, La Rosa says. They need to keep asking daily questions, even though their student is trying to stiff-arm them away. Driving a carpool of friends somewhere is the best way for a parent to hear a lot of what is going on.
"My dad had a rule that he made us say something every night at the dinner table that we learned in school," La Rosa remembers. Freshmen in high school love to keep secrets from their parents, she says. Keep talking to them and keep asking questions.
Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three teenagers.