A weekend interview with Wesley Chapel High School teacher Pam Willoughby
Ninth grade often has been considered the make or break year for teens. It's during the transition from middle to high school that many adolescents decide whether to stay in school, or not. That's why educators have begun putting a lot more attention into guiding their freshman classes more closely. One concept taking hold is that of senior advisers to the incoming freshmen. At Wesley Chapel High School in Pasco County, teacher Pam Willoughby is overseeing that effort in its first year. Willoughby spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the school's new initiative.
Tell me a little about what exactly you're doing with this group of seniors here at Wesley Chapel.
This group of seniors is being coached and trained on how to best help our freshman class succeed, especially academically. What we are doing is teaching them about leadership qualities, because they are going to be leaders in those classrooms. Quite a few of them are already leaders in the school. Then we will be teaching them peer mediation because one of the things that happens a lot, especially with the younger classes, is they get into conflicts and they haven't figured out how to resolve them yet. Sometimes it's academic, other times it is personal. And you want to be able to have students, particularly ones who have been through those situations, help those kids negotiate those tricky waters, as it is. By doing that, that allows the teachers to focus on teaching.
So it's a two-part aspect. Sometimes those kids will talk to teenagers rather than talk to teachers, and that allows the teachers to focus on the other students who want to learn and are there to learn.
Why do you want to have senior, basically, advisers to the freshman class?
That's very much what they are. The seed was planted when Carin Nettles came over from Mitchell High. They had done their Mustang University over there and they had peer mentors in the classroom. We are taking it to another level. These guys are taking an elective called Leadership Skills Development and when we started talking about what they would be doing, I said, 'Listen, we don't want to just send them into the classroom. Let's teach them some skills and let's keep track of them and make sure that they're continuing to set the example for the freshmen - making sure that they keep their own grades up, keep their attendance up, are being good role models in the classroom.' And then every month they'll have a lunch and learn with me ... where we will teach the kids ongoing leadership skills. We'll have a little bit of time where we'll say, How are things going? What challenges do you have? And then we'll continue to build on their skills. ... That to me became a big part of the reason to become their coordinating teacher. Because we want to keep track of them. We want to make sure they are doing the things we want them to do. We will be in the classrooms watching them and monitoring them at least once a month.
How did you find them?
Some of them volunteered. Other ones, teachers kind of said, 'Hey, this is a really good kid I have that would set a good example for the freshmen.' At our step-up ice cream party that we had at the end of the school year ... we had our entire junior class all in their orange class colors down to the cafeteria. Gave them all ice cream, popsicles and things like that. We had the administrative staff and some of the school leadership, where we said, 'You guys are officially the seniors.' They addressed some things they needed to talk about. One of the things was this. 'And if you guys have an elective that you can drop in favor of Leadership Skills Development, and you think you have the qualities that we are looking for, then we want to talk with you.' So they put their names in for it. We also recruited some of them. ... What was nice, some of the kids just stepped up and said, Yes, this is what I want to do.
Did you have any who said no?
The ones that said no were ones that couldn't fit it into their schedule. One I'm thinking of in particular already had six AP classes. ...
When I was talking to them, they all said things about liking to help. They also said they could have used something like this freshman year if they didn't already have a brother or a cousin or somebody in the school. Is that part of the thinking, that having somebody who is older and experienced in the school can give some guidance that maybe an adult can't give?
I think that's exactly it. Because my high school experience was 25 years ago, a lot different than what these guys are experiencing. And they can talk to them from a much more immediate standpoint. 'Hey, when I was in your shoes three or four years ago, this is what I learned and I wish somebody had told me.' We're finding looking at the data that if you can get the freshmen especially in those first three or four weeks, that first quarter ... and it can be something as simple as, 'Nobody welcomed me. I'm not coming back.' They tune out and they're gone. We don't want to lose them. And so a large part of our Wildcat Pride Academy is making sure from the start that these guys start seeing each other as a group, a team, that they have knowledge before day one so they have some confidence going in.
So you're having a freshman orientation?
Freshmen only orientation, Aug. 3.
Will they be here, these mentors?
That reminds me a lot of college.
It is very much like that, isn't it? Where it's that freshmen only thing. We're doing that, and their carrot is that they will get their schedule at the end of the day. ... They'll be able to go to their classes, see where their classes are. ...
So this is an all-out focus on the freshmen, and the seniors are here to help them.
The seniors are here to help. We're also having a homeroom period this year, 20 minutes. In that homeroom period they are going to be by class level ... so that we can get information out to the school. ... Each one of the assistant principals is responsible for homeroom curriculum. ... It's not just sit and talk to your friends for 20 minutes. It is going to be very directed. ... Each one of the grades is going to be addressed.
At the end of the first year of this, how do you tell if it has been successful?
We are going to probably see better passing rates, far less behavior issues. We would like to see more school pride, class pride. We would mostly like to see kids much more involved in their academics, much more confident. Mitchell High had some remarkable numbers in their first semester they looked at. We want to see that kind of stuff. We will hopefully never again be a D school, and this is a large part of it.