Welcome to the ‘fam’

By Douglas Buell

dbuell@arlingtontimes.com

ARLINGTON – Sincere interest and a few kind words of encouragement from upperclassmen at Arlington High School can make even the most anxious new freshman students feel welcome on their first day.

Seems it works on new principals, too.

“I had students asking me how my first day went at the end of the day,” said new principal Duane Fish, who is starting his first school year in the new job after serving in the same post at Bainbridge Island High School.

“When young people come up and do that, it’s a pretty cool thing,” he said. They hold the door for one another, say ‘hello’ and ‘good morning.’ They’re just good kids in Arlington. Their parents are doing a great job.”

Schools across the Arlington district were busy with a whirlwind of student activity on opening day Wednesday as new students learned the ropes and returning ones adjusted to a new year, one grade closer.

Freshman, however, got a one-day head start at Link Day on Tuesday. In all, 120 upperclassmen belong to what is called the Link Crew, a middle school to high school transition program that helps freshmen students navigate the campus, serve as liaisons for freshmen activities, and offer peer tutoring to address the challenges and intimidation that can come when setting foot in a new school.

“A big part of what we try to do in the first days of school is to help those freshmen feel welcome on campus,” Fish said. A Link Leader is attached to about a half dozen or so freshmen as they learn their way around campus, find activities to get involved in, and get details about upcoming social events such as Friday’s Welcome Assembly, home football game and Welcome Back Dance that follows.

“It kind of gets the kids to feel like this is their school now, and gets them connected right away, instead of having 420 freshmen wandering around wondering where they’re supposed to be and what’s going on,” Fish said.

Posters and banners in the commons and around the school give quick reminders of inclusiveness to the newcomers, like “Welcome to the ‘fam’ Class of 2021,”and “Freshmen are about to stun; watch out for the Class of 2021.”

Helping students among the 1,700 population succeed and graduate is the focus for school leaders, with special attention paid to helping incoming ninth-graders make the jump to high school.

There’s another huge reason that so much attention is heaped on ninth-graders, and so early. “Success in your freshman year is the No. 1 indicator of whether a student will graduate on time,” Fish said.

An expanding body of research suggests the grades students earn in their freshman year are a strong forecaster of whether they will graduate at all, more telling than test scores or family income.

Educators refer to what happens to freshmen transitioning into high school who get lost in the crowd as “the ninth-grade bottleneck.” Clearly it’s an awkward crossroads in school life for many students, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

A 2005 University of Chicago study of public schools revealed that 81 percent of students who completed the ninth grade without failing a course wound up graduating four years later. For students who failed one or more class, the on-time graduate rate plummeted to 22 percent.

“We have a focus on ensuring that every ninth-grader is on time for graduation at this time next year,”Fish said. “There are 24 credits required, we have 6 periods in a day, 4 years to do it; 6 times 4 is 24, and there’s no room for failure.”

Fish said the first day of school was wonderful, and he credited staff for the great job they did last spring before he was hired putting together the master school schedule and class schedules to ensure kids had access to the classes that they wanted – and needed – to take.

“We didn’t have too much chaos. You’re always going to have a little chaos, but we feel like people for the most part were able to get their schedules and get started into the flow of the school year right from the start,”said Fish, adding that calendars should all be ironed out by this week. With ever-expanding pathways to graduation now, too, including Running Start, Sno-Isle Skills Center, Career and Technical Education offerings, online courses, home schooling in combination with high school, scheduling is more complex. He has been through many teacher contract negotiations, and he applauded the parties for working together to reach an agreement last week that will be in the best interest of students.

Arlington Education Association teachers Tuesday night ratified a collective bargaining agreement that enabled the first day of class to start on time, while addressing issues including teacher pay, K-3 and Special Education overload and class sizes. The contract is for one year only, due to major changes that could reshape the education playing field in 2018, largely tied to the McCleary court decision and funding in Olympia.

The school board will discuss the agreement at its next meeting on Sept. 11.

“The goal from everybody’s perspective was to start school on time, and we’re just thankful that negotiations in the school district moved forward,” Fish said. “From the teacher’s union side and the district side, they worked so hard to come to an agreement that was ratified.”

“It’s big for our families and our kids, and doing what’s best for kids at the end of the day is what we’re shooting for.”