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SD Department of Education
Jan. 2020  

TEACHER FEATURE: Freshman Academy an investment in success

“If you want to change your high school, there’s no better place to start than in the ninth grade,” says Dr. Todd Novak, who is in his 11th year running the Freshman Academy at Washington High School in Sioux Falls. “What you invest in your ninth-grade students will pay out over the next four years.”

The structure
Washington invests heavily in its ninth graders and enjoys dividends in its graduation rate. With the strength of its diversity and despite the significant economic barriers that some students and their families face, the school’s graduation and completer rates are consistently on par with Sioux Falls’ other high schools.

Novak explains that the Freshman Academy applies a middle school approach by having a team of teachers share a common group of students. The Academy consists of five teams, each made up of three teachers: an English teacher, a math teacher, and a biology teacher. Each team has 80-95 students in common. For an hour each day, that teacher team meets for collaboration and professional development related to supporting their freshmen. Each day’s meeting has a distinct focus:

  • Data Day: Missing assignments, absences, grades, discipline
  • Program and professional development
  • Talk about every student . . . again! Plan next steps.
  • Action day: parent contacts, meet with students, email or contact other stakeholders.
  • A day to celebrate students and recharge teachers
  • Additionally, teachers meet for 45 minutes each week with their fellow content teachers in the Academy.
“Essentially we say to Academy teachers, ‘Welcome to our school. For an hour a day, you’re going to meet with two other professionals who have your same students and your same challenges. You’ll get to learn from them, and they from you. One day each week, you’ll also meet with four other teachers who teach the same content as you, and they’re going to share with you everything they’re doing – ideas, scope, sequence,’” Novak says. “The support is transformational.”

It’s about the adults
“It’s all about the adults,” Novak says. “That may sound counterintuitive, but to most effectively support freshmen, we’ve got to get the adults on the same page. When the administration and the teachers are working together, and there’s good collegiality, good accountability, and a good exchange of information, things go well.”

Spring conference with Scott Habeeb
When Novak was just beginning with the Freshman Academy, he came across the work of Scott Habeeb, a principal, presenter, and author from Virginia, who started the Freshman Transition Network. The two are now planning a conference in Sioux Falls on March 28, called “The Ninth Grade Opportunity: Transforming Schools from the Bottom Up,” based on Habeeb’s book of the same title. Habeeb and Novak will provide the keynote addresses, there will be breakout sessions and a networking lunch. Details and event registration information can be found at toddnovakedu.com/.

Treating freshmen as leaders
“The goal of the Freshman Academy at Washington is to help every freshman successfully transition to 10th grade,” Novak says. “We know that if a freshman makes it to 10th grade, their chances of graduating go up significantly.”

A program that has evolved out of Novak’s work with the Freshman Academy is the Connections leadership camp, which he leads with Matt Kiesow. Washington High School annually hosts two summer sessions of this 10-day camp. Approximately 60 students attend each session and are broken into teams of approximately 10 freshmen with two upperclassmen mentors.

Mornings are dedicated to academics, including a novel study; hands-on, project-based math; and High School 101, which covers concepts like GPA, credits, and high school rules and regulations.

In the afternoons, students participate in a variety of competitive leadership development events. At the end of each event, students gather to process the event. This debriefing begins with mentors telling stories about how they saw students on their teams lead that day. This segues into freshmen sharing stories. The goal is to turn a competitive event into an opportunity to lift each other up.

“We are calibrating expectations,” Novak says. “We want students to think about what just happened. When we’re successful, this is how we should treat each other. When we’re frustrated, this is how we should treat each other. At the end of 10 days, they’ve had a common, significant experience in high school. They are better equipped to support their peers when they all hit the first day of high school.

“One of the best compliments I ever received as a professional was after we’d been doing Connections for about three years. The lead daytime custodian pulled me aside one day. He’s there all summer and kind of sees what we’re doing with the kids. He said, ‘I just wanted to let you know, the freshmen are different. What you’re doing in the summer, it’s making a difference. I’m getting after them less. They’re taking care of each other better; it’s just different.’ That was a lot of fuel in our tank.”

Novak recently gave a TEDX Talk on his work: My Life Among Freshmen and the Adults Who Teach Them.

He also writes about his work at toddnovakedu.com/.

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