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Students get a head start on a big year

For incoming freshmen, high school can be traumatic. A summer program eases some of that tension throughout Hillsborough County.

Published June 10, 2006

BRANDON - When Angelic Ramos starts her freshman year at Brandon High School this fall, she will already know the route to the girls' bathroom.

She's less certain about the nurse's office, which was pointed out to her during a campus tour this week.

"This school's kind of big,'' said the 15-year-old. "It's hard to remember where all the stuff is."

That's why Ramos is getting a head start on high school this summer. She is one of dozens of incoming freshmen invited to explore mostly empty halls and meet future teachers in a relaxed summer setting.

She is taking a summer course called REACH - Reaching Every Academic CHallenge. New this year, it seeks to fill a void in the summer classes offered through Hillsborough County public schools, which range from fee-based enrichment camps to remediation.

The monthlong class targets students testing a step or two below their grade level. School officials designed the program to give a leg up to students facing a critical juncture.

Freshman year is difficult for many students. The number of dropouts goes up, as do retentions and discipline referrals. Even confident students can get lost stepping into the large crowds at Hillsborough's high schools.

"It is that transition year," said Michael Grego, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for curriculum. "Some of these average students will sit there in ninth and 10th grade and say, 'This isn't cutting it.' "

The new summer program marks one piece of the county's sweeping effort to retool the high school experience. Hillsborough educators are experimenting with smaller communities within schools. In recent years, they have run a summer orientation for incoming freshmen in advanced classes.

At Brandon High, teacher Sharee McCutchen thinks 19 days of summer instruction can change the equation for students facing academic challenges in a make-or-break year.

As part of a getting-to-know-you activity, she asked students to close their eyes.

"How many people in here honestly have not read a book cover to cover?" she asked.

None raised their hands.

"I love you," said McCutchen, quizzing the students on their favorite genre of reading material.

For the next month, she will work with students in small groups using a computer-based curriculum. McCutchen sees them for 80 minutes each day. They receive equal time in math and writing instruction.

Class time serves as a backdrop for an introduction to high school. McCutchen wants her students to meet the guidance counselors, coaches and teachers they'll see in the fall.

"They have faces already, when they walk in the first day of school, they can trust," she said. "They're not spending their first nine weeks trying to figure out the school."

District officials aimed to use the summer program to reach 880 students - mostly incoming freshmen and a handful of sophomores - identified as needing an academic boost. At the end of the first week, they counted 381 students, with one-fourth of high schools not yet reporting their enrollment.

The preview also extends to the social side of high school life.

On a recent break from class, Quonte Northern bumped into another freshman in the summer program. They met on the campus tour and bonded over a Game Boy in his backpack.

Now they huddled over hand-held video games between classes.

"I get the feel of what high school's going to be like," said Northern, 15.

His friend wondered if it's worth the missed days of summer vacation.

"It's taking away our summer," he said. "I'm still not used to waking up early for middle school. Now I have to wake up even earlier."

The 13-year-old looked up. In this whirlwind introduction to high school, the buddies had forgotten something important.

"My name is Steven Greene," he said.

Letitia Stein can be reached at or 813 226-3400.

[Last modified June 10, 2006, 05:55:55]

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