The move from middle school to high school tends to be daunting for any teenager. Going into an environment as expansive as Piscataway High School – where you are one of 2,100 students navigating two buildings – can be downright overwhelming.
But incoming ninth graders have a resource to help them get acclimated to PHS, so they can thrive in their first year of a four-year journey.
Freshman Seminar is a required course for ninth-grade students at Piscataway High School. This full-year class provides transition support, with the broader goal of building community and belonging to bolster the likelihood that students will succeed academically as well as socially and emotionally.
“The more students feel a sense of belonging within their school community, the more likely they are to succeed,” said Noel Aprile, the district’s supervisor of special projects, who oversees the Freshman Seminar program, as well as transition and mentoring programs throughout the district.
When students transition to a new school, they leave behind a support system of teachers, peers, administrators, nurses, counselors and support staff. While many students will maintain some peer relationships from middle school, they also experience changes in their friend groups when they start high school.
Freshman Seminar is a ready support system as they enter this new phase of their lives. It provides students with essential skills, supports, strategies and understandings to succeed as PHS students and inclusive global citizens. In addition to learning what resources and opportunities are available at the high school, students learn to set personal and academic goals, develop effective work habits and build relationships.
Freshman Seminar is taught by teachers from all departments and includes 11th- and 12th-grade mentors to help guide their freshman peers on the path to success. These older students help ninth graders reflect on the connection between thoughts, actions and behaviors in various contexts, and explore social awareness topics, including bias, equity and discrimination, to build understanding, respect and inclusivity.
“My favorite part of Freshman Seminar was group activities that bonded us together,” said Macaria Hutchinson, a junior who is now a mentor in the program. “Getting to know more about my peers and mentors made me comfortable enough to open up!”
Aprile led the effort to create Freshman Seminar and its accompanying mentor course in the 2019-2020 school year, with the support of Superintendent Dr. Frank Ranelli.
“I’m a big believer in the power of relationships,” Ranelli said. “When a new student is coming into Piscataway High School, it can be overwhelming. What they need is guidance from our staff as well as their peers, and that’s exactly what Freshman Seminar provides. It’s a defined program that formalizes what our staff was already doing: boosting our students’ social and emotional well-being.
“We offered a similar course in my previous district, and it worked out so well that I wanted to bring something similar to Piscataway High School. It’s been a tremendous success for our students.”
The curriculum was created by Aprile and a team that included a school counselor, a middle school teacher and high school teachers in the areas of special education, math, science, English, business and Career and Technical Education and social studies. Their work was guided by Aprile’s research into transition supports and mentoring for belonging and equity. This included staff surveys, school needs assessments and meetings with middle school and high school students, staff and administrators.
Kelly Chilakos, a PHS career and college counselor who participated in curriculum development, also collaborated with Aprile to create a mentoring guide for a Freshman Seminar Mentor Course to align with the Freshman Seminar curriculum. Chilakos acts as a facilitator during mentor summer training.
“As a strong believer in peer leadership, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to be involved with the new Freshman Seminar program,” Chilakos said. “To offer a full-year course to support the transition to the high school was a huge undertaking, but also a worthwhile one. We created units that made sense for the incoming ninth-grade students, outlined the role of the mentors and provided daily planning and resources for the teachers.”
As important as the curriculum, teachers and administrative support are for the program, nothing may have as big of an impact on the ninth graders as their peer mentors.
At least two mentors are assigned to each section of Freshman Seminar. They report to the class regularly alongside their ninth-grade peers, leading 20- to 30-minute group mentoring activities as well as one-to-one meetings with each mentee. When they aren’t facilitating individual or group activities, mentors are participating in teacher-led activities.
Freshman Seminar Mentor Course is the companion course to Freshman Seminar. Rising juniors and seniors apply for the course in spring for the following school year. All eligible candidates complete an interview, and up to 60 students are selected for course acceptance. Course completion provides students with five credits toward the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Career Readiness, Life Literacies, and Key Skills requirement.
“We had over 100 applicants this year!” said mentor coordinator Dawne Dionisio. “It was a daunting task to have to make a selection after meeting all of the would-be mentors.”
Those who are selected take part in a four-day mentor camp over the summer to prepare them for their role during the school year. In addition to training for mentoring, confidentiality and inclusivity, mentors take part in a variety of ice breakers and group challenges. The district also partners with OPA Winning Teams, a team-building organization, to create rich learning opportunities that leaves mentors with lasting memories and ideas that they can pass on to their mentees.
“Camp was a great experience this summer, helping me improve mentorship skills in fundamental ways,” said mentor Mason Tomasino, a Piscataway High School senior. “I feel so prepared to be a mentor next year thanks to that experience. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone come September.”
Mentor training continues throughout the school year. Mentors meet for support sessions during their usual Freshman Seminar class period to share successes and challenges with each other and prepare for upcoming activities. Mentors also participate in two full days of training.
“Mentor training and support are critical to successful mentorship,” Aprile said. “We’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the assistance of PHS teacher Dawne Dionisio to help with that effort. Mrs. Dionisio has not only been a support for our mentors, but also for the entire program.”
Student mentors also appreciate the continual training program.
“These days help to continuously refresh my resources and tactics when it comes to delivering my mentees the best FS experience,” said Aliyah Vidal, a PHS senior and second-year mentor. “A simple debrief and advice exchanged with my fellow mentors gave me insight into how situations can be approached in a variety of ways. I have an amazing support system willing to lend a hand when I need it most.”
Having fun is another key to the success of the program. Students and mentors take part in Freshman Field Day, where the different Freshman Seminar classes compete against one another in field events and contests, and a door-decorating contest, where students highlight different cultures that they have researched. Mentors also assist with Freshman Experience, a week of fun activities and informative sessions held during August to welcome the new freshman class to Piscataway High School.
“The overarching goal of this course is to build community and belonging,” Aprile said. “We also have fun together and intentionally provide opportunities for students to form connections with each other and with their teacher.”
Additionally, students explore and practice mindfulness strategies, begin to build a resume, practice presentation skills and expand cultural awareness. Each Freshman Seminar class also designs and carries out a service project during the school year.
“Whenever I talk about Freshman Seminar, I think of the phrase, ‘But wait, there’s more!’ from TV infomercials,” Aprile joked. “We built so much into this course. Our students are not just learning how to be high school students, they are learning skills and insights that will benefit them for life.”