Balloons adorned the entrances and Tony the Titan joined faculty and staff in welcoming several hundred teenagers to Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center for the second annual Hello High School, a commencement event held Aug. 21.
Although the word commencement is most often associated with graduation, Alexandria has a unique situation in that all middle school students in the public schools, George Washington and Francis Hammond, begin their high school career at Minnie Howard. While the effect is that of bringing together erstwhile rivals, the situation also creates something of an identity crisis for the freshmen who attend Minnie Howard but participate in extra-curricular activities as T.C. Williams Titans. The result is that the trauma of going from middle school to high school has an additional dimension.
As students entered Minnie Howard, teachers greeted them warmly and personally, and directed them to the cafeteria. Many of the students greeted each other with hugs and grins were plentiful.
The model of a well-planned and executed event, the program ran on schedule with just the right proportion of message to social time.
When Grace Taylor became the principal at Minnie Howard, she had the perspective of having been the immediate past principal of George Washington Middle School, one of the feeder schools. She realized that, although the students had an orientation at their home schools, they did not have the opportunity to visit their new one until school started in the fall.
The idea came about when I moved from GW and I wanted to begin a transition program for students to take a tour and get a feel for the new school, Taylor said. I saw a need for kids to come to our campus. I thought it was important to come to see the school and to ease their nerves.
Taylor said that she was especially pleased and surprised by the number of staff who committed to coming during their off-time. Susan Smith, the schools director of student services, came up with the friendly Hello High School moniker for the event.
Footprint to the Future
Sixty Minnie Howard teachers, many wearing T-shirts bearing the motto Journey, Leadership and Legacy, voluntarily participate in the program, including several planning meetings as well as the event itself, to ease the transition for the rising freshmen.
As students waited for the official start time, teachers mingled and encouraged them to complete a Footprint Activity in which they identified a goal for leaving [their] mark on MHS, and wrote it on a foot-shaped piece of paper which was taped to a wall or column.
This year, the staff introduced the idea of passports, emphasizing the journey element of high school. Students wore either red or blue nametags that were marked with dots of six different colors to organize their activities. The reds and blues were assigned to separate venues for panel discussions with current T.C. students, and then the colored dots from both groups reorganized for small group sessions
Each of the sessions revolved around expectations for high school students, and attendance at each was marked with a stamp, the first, an H for the general welcome session in the cafeteria. Each subsequent session, Expect, Learning, Challenge, Commitment, Accountability and Experience, garnered another letter, so that students who stayed the course ended with a passport with H-O-W-A-R-D, reinforcing that students were all part of the same team now.
The program included outlines of the more structured sessions, a school scavenger hunt and a map of the school.
Two panels of T.C. students, one in the cafeteria and one in the auditorium, talked about school life at Minnie Howard and T.C. Williams. Two themes were common in both: the importance of learning time management, and that a surprising number of students found journalism to be a favorite class.
It wasnt all work, though. Students had social time to talk with old friends as well as meet new ones. Students who had attended separate schools but mingled on youth sports and community activities had the opportunity to expand their network of friends and commence the process of becoming a unified student body, hence the event being referred to as a commencement.
As a final activity, some students chose to return to the cafeteria to socialize, but most headed to the gym for volleyball, wall-climbing or bowling. The event concluded with pizza and prizes of basketball and football tickets for T.C. games, and all of the students received a T.C. Williams lanyard.
Of course, the success or failure of the school year rests on the continual work and cooperation of students, their families and their teachers, but the staff and faculty who gave up some of their summer time to make the transition easier have provided the foundation and atmosphere that offer every opportunity for success.
If nothing else was accomplished, the 300 or so students who showed up now see Minnie Howard as a welcoming place with adults who care about them and their success.