Tara Trzeciak, an incoming freshman at Bel Air High School, got what she considers genuine answers to her questions about life in high school from older students Wednesday.
“They were personal with [us],” she said. “They know where we’re coming from, so they’re just nice about everything.”
Tara, 13, of Bel Air, was among a group of incoming ninth-graders who spent about three hours Wednesday with Bel Air High School upperclassmen and administrators learning about the high school experience.
They had activities such as a question-and-answer session with upperclassmen, filled out surveys listing their questions and concerns about high school, broke into smaller groups for a scavenger hunt to learn the layout of the school and even saw a video and had a brief discussion on the developing adolescent brain.
Tara said the scavenger hunt, through which students found classrooms, the cafeteria, nurse’s office and opened a locker, was of some help, but she expects there will still be confusion when the school year starts next month.
“The school is just really big, so I know everyone’s going to get lost,” Tara said.
Bel Air High is hosting four gatherings, called a “success session” in a Harford County Public Schools news release, serving about 240 incoming BAHS freshmen through next week.
The sessions started Monday, with the second Wednesday. There have been 55 to 62 students per session, and parents can still register their children for upcoming sessions next Wednesday, Aug. 15, and Thursday, Aug. 16. The Wednesday session runs from 8-11 a.m., and the Thursday event is from 1-4 p.m.
Parents should contact assistant principal Helen Miller at 410-638-4600, to register. Miller has been hosting the sessions, developed based on research she conducted on psychology, motivation and youth development, as well as a desire by school officials to make incoming freshmen as relaxed as possible before school starts.
“This was her big drive this year, to work with the incoming freshmen,” Principal Greg Komondor said of Miller.
Miller is starting her third year at Bel Air and 12th year with Harford County Public Schools. The upcoming school year will be her 22nd in education, as she worked in Texas schools for 10 years prior to coming to Harford County.
This is the first year for the success session program, and it is just for Bel Air High School freshmen, according to Miller.
Miller said school administrators want the ninth-graders to be “as comfortable as possible” before the annual freshman orientation, Freshmen Fest, takes place Aug. 31. The orientation, which is for students and parents, runs from 9-11 a.m.
The 2018-19 school year, for all 54 Harford County Public Schools, begins Tuesday, Sept. 4.
“Thank you for coming ... I’m looking forward to another great year,” Komondor told the freshmen. “I hope you guys have a good day today.”
He also wished them luck on their scavenger hunt.
Student Siqi “Jennifer” Wang, 14, of Bel Air, said the hunt helped her learn the building “a little bit, but it’s still confusing.”
Another concern for her is making friends next year, as her best friend from Bel Air Middle School will attend Patterson Mill High School. Siqi noted she will start high school with other friends from middle school, such as John Bell, who was with her at Wednesday’s session.
John, 14, of Forest Hill, said the scavenger hunt had been helpful, as well as talking with older students.
“I get a visualization in my head of how it will be when I’m in [high school], because they’ve already gone through it,” John said.
Miller led the session Wednesday, moving back and forth between two groups of students in the media center, where they spent the majority of their time. Fellow assistant principals, Jim Lamb and Al Johnson, lent their support, and about 10 volunteer Bel Air students worked with the freshmen, answering questions and helping lead activities.
Miller has also enlisted the support of Bel Air High graduates, and she has been stepping back, gradually, and allowing the older students to take a greater leadership role in the sessions.
Rising senior Jack Brink, 18, of Forest Hill, was among the student leaders. He said he thinks “it would have definitely been helpful” to have such a program before he started his freshman year.
“I think it’s important for freshmen to be able to talk to upperclassmen, build a connection with them before they enter the school,” Brink said.
He said he volunteered, in part, because his cousin, Ben Bagley, will be a freshman at Bel Air this year. Ben attended Wednesday’s session, according to Brink.
“I thought it would be cool to see him and help him find his way around the school,” Brink said.
Brink wrestles for the Bobcats, and he will be a captain on the varsity during the upcoming school year.
He said he has fielded some questions during the sessions about high school sports, and he said it has been a helpful way for the younger students to determine if they want to do sports because there’s a significant time commitment that must be balanced with schoolwork.
In the media center, Miller showed the freshmen how they can plan the next four years in terms of their coursework, and how earning credits by passing their classes will ensure they graduate on time and have the opportunity to take college classes part time during their senior year.
The reverse happens if they fail a class, since they would have to repeat it and add it to their course load the next year, slowing their progress toward graduation, according to Miller.
“They can see that their actions have consequences,” Miller said.
Teenage brain development
Miller gave the students a short lesson about the still-developing adolescent brain, supported by a video of actor Rainn Wilson and online personality Ze Frank discussing teenagers’ brains.
“Basically, teenagers are idiots and their brains are still developing, and their neural pathways are developing as well,” Wilson says in the video, which can be found on YouTube.
Frank, noting Wilson’s “tongue in cheek” remark, said the brain’s frontal lobe does not mature until a person is in their early 20s. It is “where wisdom resides,” and is used to weigh consequences of actions, make plans and predictions, regulate emotions and control impulses.
That leads teenagers to make impulsive decisions, putting them at risk for problems such as drug addiction, and have overwhelming emotional responses to things that might not seem important to an adult. It also means teens are more willing to take risks and try things that could change the world, according to Frank and Wilson.
“It’s what makes teenagers awesome,” Wilson said.
Miller asked the youths several survey questions about the brain, asking them to rate claims about it as “fact” or “fiction.” One claim that many students rated as “fact” was that they will have the same intelligence, the same brain throughout their life.
Miller said that claim is “totally false,” because the students’ brains are becoming stronger and faster with new neural connections that bring all of their lobes together.
That means they can change and be better students or more sociable than they were in middle school, she said.
“You are not born that way for the rest of your life — you can change and do whatever it is that you want to do,” Miller told the students. “Your brain is right there with you to help you along the way.”