Freshman year should be considered the first leg of a long-distance run. Strong success in the freshman year greatly affects how well a student achieves his or her academic and life goals.

In the fall of 2011, Rahway High School began its freshman seminar program to make the experience for all of its students a bigger, stronger and more fulfilling one. The program is required for all ninth-graders, helping them to identify lifestyle preferences, related financial needs, and viable career trajectories that can sustain these aspirations.

Rahway High School’s full-year course, entitled “Freshman Seminar/Financial Literacy,” is designed to satisfy the New Jersey graduation requirement for financial literacy that applies to the Class of 2014 and beyond. The course is aligned with the New Jersey standards for 21st Century Life and Careers.

At Rahway High School, we believe that the freshman year – the most uncharted territory of the high school experience – must be a time when meaningful career and life goals are developed through a systematic and embedded series of reflective inquiries led by peer and adult mentors. All of our students – ranging from those who are the most likely to succeed to those who are at the highest risk of dropping out – benefit from outlining goals that scaffold their beliefs, self-esteem, and intrinsic motivation.

Goal setting is universally essential, often making the difference between an individual realizing his or her dreams, or alternatively, missing opportunities due to a lack of preparation, a lack of self-confidence or a lack of intrinsic motivation. In short, success during the high school years, in post-secondary pursuits, in career pathways, and in lifestyle choices is no accident. It results from taking advantage of the opportunities that high school offers early in the game through sound transition planning, leaving open many doors and pathways to reach one’s personal and career goals.

What types of essential questions do counselors, teachers, support staff, and administrators need to pose when guiding students along a purposeful pathway towards educational and career planning in the formative high school years? For starters, here are some:

What interests do I have, and what talents do I have in these areas of interest?

What types of careers fit well with my interests and talents?

What lifestyle choices do I want to pursue?

What are the financial constraints and opportunities associated with my career and lifestyle choices?

What is required in my high school years to realistically pursue my career and lifestyle choices?

What barriers to success will I encounter in my high school years in seeking my desired career and lifestyle choices?

What strengths must I develop in my high school years to attain my desired career and lifestyle choices?

When a failure or missed opportunity occurs in pursuit of my desired career and lifestyle choices, how will I overcome this adversity?

How will I celebrate and build upon my successes in pursuit of my desired career and lifestyle choices?

What if things change, and/or can I change my mind?

In order for students to develop concrete answers to these essential questions, the Freshman Seminar/Financial Literacy course at Rahway High School requires students to complete units of study related to career interests, lifestyle choices, leadership styles, team building, ethics, financial literacy, and overall mental and physical wellness.

As students examine these topics, they sculpt a multidimensional perspective of themselves – shaping personal beliefs, clarifying lifestyle aspirations, and planning for the realization of these personal choices. Along the way, students expand their academic skills and solidify their ethical foundations, fueling the intrinsic motivation that drives success in a manner similar to that experienced by accomplished athletes.

Students meet each day for a full year during their freshman year. Each freshman seminar class is comprised of between 15 and 24 students. Four days a week, students are involved in a seminar class; on a fifth day, students meet with trained peer leaders who have been selected to work with the class. Along the way, students participate in planned assemblies, take field trips that are connected to personal budgeting activities and hear guest speakers who share their expertise on topics related to the curriculum.

With slightly under 300 freshmen in our typical entering class, approximately 14 teaching sections are scheduled. They are taught by our teachers who come from several departments in our school, including mathematics, science, English, physical education, and social studies. Students earn 5 credits for the course.

The students participate in a variety of project-based activities through their freshman year, culminating in an electronic portfolio known as their individualized ten-year plan. The ten-year plan is viewable by all teachers, counselors, coaches, and parents. It is a web-based resource that is an integral part of helping teachers, parents, coaches and counselors know more about the students with whom they work on a daily basis.

The Teaching Team There is a teacher-leader who is in charge of the freshman seminar program, and this teacher runs the professional learning community for the team of teachers. This group is one of the most effective teacher teams at Rahway High School. The team of teachers meets once a week for a class period to discuss student needs, past and future lessons and to plan special activities – like field trips – for our freshman students.

A Continuing Effort Education and career planning doesn’t end in the freshman year. It continues through traditional channels with our guidance counselors who facilitate activities such as group-guidance sessions, individual college and career counseling sessions, college visits and instant-decision days. In addition, every teacher who is assigned to teach students in the upper grades must plan at least one lesson in this area per year for the students who are enrolled in his or her classes. The  lessons must be connected to the ten-year plans developed in the freshman year. This effectively turns every teacher at Rahway High School into a counselor for at least a day.

Parental Input Parents have access to the ten-year plans that their children create, enabling them to better support the college and career goals established by their child. In addition, individual conferences with parents and students are facilitated by the guidance counselors to inform parents and students about how to reach and/or how to revise goals in their long-term plans. Furthermore, parent programs and counseling sessions for areas related to financial aid, athletics, and other specialized areas are offered throughout the year as part of the school counseling program.

Feedback on the Program Feedback from all stakeholders has been positive. Having students set goals and follow viable pathways toward attaining their goals creates an overwhelmingly positive school culture. Advanced Placement course enrollments have increased, failure rates have dropped and post-secondary pursuits by students have increased. Since the program’s inception in 2011, we have expanded supports for students with learning disabilities and have increased tutoring supports for students needing those services.

The Big-Picture Goal Finding a career that fosters a balanced and rewarding life should drive educational and career planning as a big-picture goal. Today’s educational and career opportunities offer possibilities that did not exist even a few years ago. Educational, career, and life plans will always be comprised of a series of personal choices. Sometimes initial choices do not yield success. However, when this happens, these attempts often become the foundation for the opportunities to get better in the future. At the end of the day, individuals who establish educational, career, and life plans, and then pursue them with the grit, tenacity, and fidelity that they require, will always have options.

John T. Farinella Jr. is the principal of Rahway High School, and a former member of the South Plainfield Board of Education. His 23 years of experience in the New Jersey public schools include serving as a mathematics teacher, vice principal, and high school principal. He was recently selected by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association as the 2017 Visionary Principal of the Year in the secondary school category. Farinella holds a master’s degree in education administration and supervision from Saint Peter’s College and a J.D. degree from Seton Hall University School of Law; he is a member of New Jersey, New York and the U.S. District Court of New Jersey bar.He can be reached at