This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
If you believe the time to start thinking about high school is near the end of 8th grade, think again.
Both the application process and the transition into 9th grade can be challenging for parents and students, so the earlier you start, the better.
“I started talking to [my kids] when they were in 6th or 7th grade,” said Autumne Hall, a Philadelphia parent who now lives in Mayfair and has a child in middle school, high school, and college.
Diana Phillips, a guidance counselor at Taggart Elementary, said, “It’s really not about 8th grade,” because parents and students need to start the process early.
That means using the middle grades to research potential high schools, visit school sites, and talk with guidance counselors and your children about future goals.
To help with the transition, the Notebook has compiled eight tips for what families can do to get a jump on high school.
Tip #1: Set a culture of high academic expectations
The earlier you start encouraging a strong work ethic academically, the better your child will make the transition.
“Part of the task should be developing students into independent learners, and having them take a sense of responsibility for their own studies,” said Cindy Farlino, principal of Meredith Elementary.
At home, incorporate routines like having a specific time or secure place to do homework.
Cheryl Morrison, the parent of a 5th grader, a high schooler, and a college graduate, said, “I have an area in my house that, if you saw it, you’d think you’d walked into Staples.”
Tip #2: Get involved at your child’s school
Volunteering is a great way to stay connected to teachers, counselors, and parents.
“Since kindergarten, I went on field trips, volunteered in classrooms, and in the recess yard – any way that the teacher or the principal might have needed help,” Hall said.
Ask the school how you can help out, and once you get involved, stay involved, said Farlino, because “that’s the piece that always changes in middle grades.”
Tip #3: Set goals in 7th grade
The 7th grade report card and behavior and attendance records are what high schools will look at first. So it is important to catch any deficiencies as soon as your child starts middle school and set goals and targets for improvement.
That’s what Morrison did with her son, a 5th grader, when she noticed his writing skills were below grade level.
“I’m trying to build up [in] his weaknesses now throughout middle school so that when he starts applying to high schools his test scores will be where they need to be,” she said.
Maintaining a strong attendance record is also critical, Phillips said.
“So many times I see students who have the potential or the grades, but in 7th grade they were late, or missed 50 days,” she said. “They’re basically giving away their spot to someone else.”
Tip #4: Find academic support
Tutoring programs and other resources can help students improve their grades.
“My children did afterschool programs that helped them with homework,” Hall said.
And when Hall’s oldest son struggled with math, she took him to the library to find additional resources. She also found a math tutor, who worked with him twice a week at home.
If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), meet with District officials at the first sign that it is not helping him or her. Morrison did this when she discovered her son needed more help with writing. Officials recommended Handwriting, Inc., a program which provides in-school services.
Tip #5: Identify a summer academic support program or summer camp
Morrison said her son has benefited from the District’s ESY (Extended School Year) summer support program. She discovered it after talking with his counselor about ways to improve his reading skills.
Parents should also take advantage of summer camps held at local universities, Phillips said. They are often offered to city residents at minimal cost.
Tip #6: Meet your child’s guidance counselor
Request a meeting with your child’s counselor no later than the fall of 7th grade to make sure your child is on track to qualify for the high schools that interest him or her. Once you’ve had that initial meeting, stay in frequent contact with the counselor throughout the year.
“If you go into the counselor’s office on the first day of 8th grade, and say ‘What can we do?’ the answer is ‘Not that much,’” Phillips said.
Tip #7: Research potential high schools
High school applications are due early in the fall of 8th grade, so start researching schools well before the school year starts.
“It’s best to use that 7th grade year, or even the summer in between [7th and] 8th grade,” Phillips said.
Also, visit the District’s high school fair in the 7th and 8th grade and plan visits to schools of interest.
“Learn everything you can, and make sure it’s a good match for your child,” Farlino said.
Tip #8: Gather letters of recommendation
Encourage your child to start building relationships with adults who can write letters of recommendation.
While they may not be required, they can help. “It can be a school, community, or volunteer group … anyone who would be willing to speak for [your child’s] character,” Phillips said.