After failing algebra in middle school, Amanda Instone feared the same fate when she arrived at C. Milton Wright High School last fall.
"I didn't have the foundation, and a lot of times I wasn't doing my homework," she said of her middle school math struggles.
Now a freshman at the Harford County high school, Amanda is getting B's in algebra, in part because of tutoring from an upperclassman.
A program that pairs freshmen with seniors who act as mentors has been the difference, Amanda says. The Mustang Transition Program is in its fourth year at the school and has led to a rise in grade point averages and a decrease in discipline-related incidents among freshmen, school officials say.
"Ninth grade is most difficult and most important," said Christopher M. Battaglia, acting principal at the school, who developed the program to ease freshmen's entry into high school. "Your high school career depends on it and dictates how well it goes."
In addition to academic help, mentors offer guidance on a range of topics including finding the science laboratory, opening a locker, and what to wear to the pep rally. The bonds that develop foster friendships between students separated by age and social experience, students say.
"I have help if I have questions in the morning and more help if I need it after school," said freshman Becky Rembold, who routinely shows up for after-school tutoring sessions with the mentors.
The program is attracting interest from other school systems. Battaglia and two teachers from the school are scheduled to give a presentation this week at the Maryland State Secondary Schools Principals Convention in Ocean City. And Joppatowne High in Harford is implementing the program.
Data that Battaglia looked at four years ago showed that high school was not going well for many freshmen. The numbers showed hundreds of referrals for discipline, truancy and tardiness, incomplete assignments, low grades and limited involvement in extracurricular activities.
That's typical at high schools in general, said Susan Black, an editor for American School Board Journal and author of The Pivotal Year, a book about research on the transition to ninth grade.
"Students are dealing with adolescence and struggling to fit into a new environment where there is a lot more work, tougher requirements and peer pressure," Black said. "There is compelling research that shows the fewer times a student changes schools, the higher the achievement."
Yet many incoming freshmen experience just that: a new school that is bigger with more students and more teachers, she said. That atmosphere can overwhelm young students, causing them become disengaged and discouraged, Black said.
C. Milton Wright, which sits on 80 acres surrounded by farms and new subdivisions near Bel Air, is the largest high school in the county, with almost 2,000 students.
In the first year of the program, there were almost 600 referrals for the freshmen class for everything from fighting to tardiness. In the first semester this year, there were fewer than 100 referrals, Battaglia said. The grade point average for the freshmen class is edging up, too, from 2.59 in 2002 to 2.85 last year, the highest in the county.
As part of the transition program, Battaglia and several ninth-grade teachers meet weekly to discuss students who are struggling academically. The teachers identify students who the teachers believe are intelligent enough to pass but are failing, often for reasons that can be addressed. Teachers suggest the program to parents.
"This program provides a safety net so that ninth-graders don't slip through the cracks," said Brian Gunter, a math teacher. "We have seniors looking out for them, in addition to teachers."
The assistance of the mentors extends beyond academic help. Seniors can help relieve freshmen's anxiety and make them feel more comfortable in school, Gunter said. A freshman might more readily join a club or attend an event if guided by a senior.
"A kid who is anxious will not perform the best that he can," Gunter said. "The seniors and freshmen talk and listen to each other. It works well both ways. The social aspects would not happen without this program."
Whitney Maust, a senior mentor who plans a career in education, said freshman are eager for guidance.
"Sometimes, it is easier to learn from us than from teachers," she said. "We can help them get into good work habits."
Zac Idzik said his grades fell in middle school, and he lost interest in classes.
"Last year, I didn't do my homework, and I had lots of problems," he said.
His freshman year started with more of the same before a staff member told his mother about the mentor program. Now he rarely misses an after-school study session in the media center, which stays open until 5:45 p.m. He can get help with an essay, tutoring in math or science or simply some advice. With encouragement from Whitney, Zac said he recently aced an English assignment.
"The mentors have all helped me this year," he said.