Monday, August 27, 2001

Changing schools tough on kids

Transition hardest in high school

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Damon McGee Jr is transferring from Fayetteville, N.C., to Winton Woods.
(Earnest Coleman photo)
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        For weeks, Damon McGee Jr. watched the Winton Woods High School football team practice for its opening game last Friday night.

        The 15-year-old transfer student from Fayetteville, N.C., desperately wanted to play football, but was waiting for his transcripts to arrive from his old school.

        They finally came last week, and Damon hopes it's not too late to play this season.

        “I really wanted to try out,” the high school junior said. “I figured I'd get to know more people if I tried out, too.”

        Damon is one of hundreds of transfer students enrolling in Tristate high schools this fall. According to the U.S. Census, about 18 million families relocate each year. Going back to school is always a challenge, but it can be especially difficult for transfer students.

Carla Thomen, 15, says she gets 'real scared' when she changes schools. She'll be a sophomore at Lakota East.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        Switching schools during high school years is the most difficult time, education experts say, because friendships are sealed and students are at the pinnacle of their academic and extracurricular activities.

        They struggle with leaving familiar surroundings and face fears about fitting in at a new school. Among problems high school transfer students may face:

        • Depression.

        • A drop in grades.

        • A change in behavior to get attention.

        It's hard enough being a new student in high school, but Damon's anxieties were magnified by the wait for the transcripts.

        This was no ordinary delay. His high school, Pine Forest Senior High in Cumberland County, N.C., burned in May, destroying records. A school administrative assistant was arrested for torching the school.

  How to help transfer students adjust
  • Advise your children immediately if a move is possible. That gives them time to adjust to the idea.
  • Try not to move after a child's junior year in high school.
  • Before a move, parents should set aside time alone with each child to find out how the child is feeling. Ask your child what you can do to help. Offer to arrange a trip back to visit old friends at a future date.
  • Invite your child's new friends to your house so you can evaluate them. See how they interact with adults.
  • Encourage transfers to get involved in extracurricular activities to make new friends. Children who have the most trouble are those who don't get involved in something positive.

  Source: Dr. Joanne Langan, assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Nursing.
        Since it's so late in the fall sport season, Damon may try to run track and play baseball to condition himself for football next year. He hopes to get a college scholarship.

        Damon's parents are divorced, and he was living with his mother. He wanted to spend more time with his dad in Forest Park.

        He's happy to be here, but there's anxiety about going to a different school. “I only know two people,” he said. “You can get lost in the school.”

        His father, Damon McGee Sr., cautions him about getting in the wrong crowd. As a juvenile court officer at 2020, the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Youth Center, he's seen that happen too often.

        “I basically told him just be careful as far as who you choose and who appears to be this or that,” he said. “Stay focused as far as school right now. Don't spend too much time trying to fit in. More than anything, keep the line of communication open with me.”

        Joanne Langan, an assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Nursing, encourages new students to be friendly to everyone and not prejudge people. A student who doesn't look like a friend may become one.

        On the other hand, she warned that new students have to choose friends carefully. “They will often pick up with the poor crowd just because they have a desperate need to belong. Even negative attention is better than no atten tion.”

        Dr. Langan has first-hand knowledge of the effects of moving on her four children. Her husband just retired from the Navy. They've moved 12 times in their 25 years of marriage.

        Changing schools can be extremely difficult for high school students, she said. “Their identity with their friends is very valuable to them. When you disrupt that support system, it really shakes their world.”

        Gender differences come into play, too, Dr. Langan said. Girls tend to be more vocal about the move. They'll lash out at their parents. Boys are more reserved. When you think they're doing OK with the move, often they're not.

        One positive aspect of relocating, Dr. Langan said, is it teaches kids to learn how to make new friends easily.

        That's true for Carla Thomen, 15, of Hamilton, who will be a sophomore at Lakota East High School. She is transferring after one year from Charles B. Aycock High School in Pikeville, N.C., which has about 600 fewer students than Lakota.

        Carla's dad, Gordon, was in the Air Force for 25 years, so she knows what it's like to move. Her family came here in May because her dad got a job at General Electric.

        Over the years, she's made friends more easily because she's become more outgoing. But it's never easy.

        “I get real scared,” she said. “It's not only the fact that I have to go to a new school with new kids, but I don't know if I'm going to be ahead or behind academically. I think I'm actually going to have to do a little catching up here. It just looks harder.”

        Her grades dropped when she moved to North Carolina, but she was able to bring them back up in two months. “Your mind is not really focused,” she said.

        Carla expects to fit in at Lakota easier than she did in North Carolina. At Pikeville, she was the only new student all year and went to school with kids who had been friends since kindergarten. At Lakota, transfer students are abundant.

        Lakota East enrolls about 100 new students a year, said Helene Kriner, director of guidance.

        The school helps transfers by giving teachers their names, alerting them to the fact that these kids might be homesick. Some aren't just transferring because of a parent's job, but there may have been a divorce.

        “They're really often facing some pretty heavy issues,” she said.

        Besides finding friends, there's the academic issue. At enrollment two weeks ago, students were worried about their academic fit, Mrs. Kriner said. They might be coming from a school that is harder or easier.

        “They're nervous as they sign up for classes. Are they going to be in the right slot? If they're not, we'll work to try to readjust their schedule.”

        They worry, too, about the first day of classes, especially lunchtime. Mrs. Kriner reminds teachers in the fourth period, the class before lunch, to ask if there are any new students and if they have someone to eat lunch with.

        “A lot of times we find these students aren't eating for a week or two because they don't want to be seen eating alone,” Mrs. Kriner said.

        “It's a hard transition in high school. Some of them are from smaller schools. This is a very frightening experience for them. It takes the really well-adjusted ones until after Christmas until they start feeling comfortable.”


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