Starting high school is a frightening experience for most students, but imagine doing it at 12 or 13. That's what Southern Middle School's seventh-grade graduating class faces in a few months when it walks through the doors of Southern High School one year early.
To ease the fast-forward introduction to high school -- which began three years ago because of severe crowding at Southern Middle -- teachers from the middle and high schools developed a transition program for some of the high school-bound seventh-graders.
Called "Pups to Dawgs" -- named for Southern High's bulldog mascot -- the initiative brings eighth-grade pupils and juniors from the high school to Southern Middle to give a preview of high school life to seventh-graders identified as academically at risk. The juniors also dispense key "dos" and "don'ts," such as "don't touch the students' cars," and "keep a 2.1 GPA if you want to play sports."
The idea is to help the pupils get a head start adjusting to a world where they're expected to be more independent and responsible, and some of their fellow students drive, wear makeup and shave.
"It's so intimidating, and if you know what you're walking into you can handle it better," said Marilyn Harmon, a co-founder of the transition program and the Career Connections facilitator at Southern High, where next year's eighth-grade class numbers 306. She developed the program with Rona Warner, her counterpart at Southern Middle.
The transition program is available to the 50 seventh-graders in Southern Middle's Career Connections program, most of whom have been referred to the class by teachers. The classes are intended to convey the idea that skills learned in school are applicable in the world of work.
Southern High School juniors, who volunteered to be mentors to next year's eighth-graders, met with some of the future high-schoolers Friday at Southern Middle. The visits were structured like job interviews, with the juniors trying to determine whether the seventh-graders were high school material.
"It's not a matter of will we accept you, we have to accept you," Harmon said. "But we might say, you need to work on attendance or grades or attention in class."
Harmon said it became apparent that a seventh-grade transition program was needed after the first year the younger students were at Southern High, in 1997.
Some of the eighth-graders had trouble adopting the study habits and behaviors expected from high school students.
At Southern High, Harmon said each day as many as eight eighth-graders are referred to the school office for behavior problems, the highest among all the grades.
"They're focused on themselves," Harmon said. "We let them know they need to know they need to focus and be accountable for where their hands go and how loud their voice is."
"This process was developed to get the seventh-graders to start thinking ahead to August and to arrive at high school with a mind set to succeed," she said.
On Friday, the high-schoolers and middle-schoolers met in small groups in front of Southern Middle. Wearing his "Dawgs" football jersey, Southern High junior Joe Grigg read from an "interview protocol" to seventh-grader Mike Hardesty.
"I'm here to interview you to see if you're ready to come to the high school. As you may know we're different from the middle school. For example, some of us drive to school, some of us work at part-time jobs. Your grades and attendance record become a part of our permanent record that gets sent to colleges and employers."
Sticking to the script, Grigg asked Mike Hardesty, "What do you want to do in high school?"
"I want to play football," Mike replied.
"What's your attendance like?" Grigg asked.
Mike said he had missed eight days of school.
"That's OK, but in high school the maximum you can miss is six," he said, warning Mike that more absences in a semester could mean a failing grade.
Eventually, the formality of the "interviews" gave way to more casual exchanges.
Martin Newburger, 12, soaked up advice from Ashley Smith and Ashleigh Bankus. They let him know about job internships and told him that after eighth grade students have to buy their gym clothes.
"Everybody always dresses up for pep rallies, not just the nerdy people," Bankus said.
Make friends with your guidance counselor, get involved and respect your teachers, juniors Rachelle Otero and Ashley Thompson told Jeremy Messineo, 13.
The middle-schoolers had a chance to ask questions, too.
"Were you really bad in high school?" Demarko Offer asked Brendan Litz.
"I did my fair share of goofing off in 10th grade," acknowledged Litz. "But my parents said that if my grades didn't come up, the car goes."
Southern Middle eighth-graders won't return to their home school until August 2003, when a $15 million expansion and renovation is scheduled for completion.
Until then, junior Sarah Higdon has one piece of advice for the future eighth-graders at Southern High. Don't grow up too fast.
"I think a lot of them feel they have to act older," Higdon said. "They're 13, and they need to be kids. They don't have to impress us."