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Freshman Academy gives kids a head start on high school

Incoming Rosemount High School freshmen Skylar Wirtanen, left, and Sydney Cabrillo appear to be enjoying themselves as they work on an experiment designed to familiarize them with the scientific method at Monday's Freshman Academy session. Wirtanen and Cabrillo are among about 105 students enrolled in the academy this summer.

While their classmates are working summer jobs or enjoying the sunny weather, a group of about 100 incoming ninth graders are getting a head start on life in high school and beyond.

In its third year, Rosemount High School's Freshman Academy is part academic help session, part orientation and part community service project. It's a way for the school to help students get ready for the bigger, faster and more demanding life of a high school student.

"We felt we wanted to be proactive and set something up for our incoming ninth graders," said Maureen Kelly-Carroll, who organizes the program. "We want them to come into the building, get to know adults and students."

Most of the students who attend the sessions have been identified by their middle schools as needing a little extra academic help or having made some poor academic decisions. But nobody is required to come, and nobody who wants to take part is excluded. Kelly-Carroll said she got a call this year from a mother who's son attended an earlier academy and who wanted her daughter, who was not invited, to have a chance to attend.

"I think the word's getting out," Kelly-Carroll said.

That seems clear from the academy's attendance. In its first year the Freshman Academy drew 35 students. Last year there were 85. As of June 17, this year's session had 105 students signed up.

The sessions include some academic work. There are 10 teachers signed up to teach lessons at the academy. On Monday, on the first day of this summer's session, students got quick refresher on mathematical formulas for measuring geometric shapes. The math class will also feature projects like using shapes to construct a model of a rocket or graphing the prices of grocery products.

"We try to do math skills, but also things that come in handy in high school altogether," said Megan Rice, one of two special education teachers leading the math class.

Helping students get comfortable in their new school is a big part of the academy. Students get a tour of the building and learn where things are. They learn where the seniors sit in the cafeteria and how to make a good first impression on teachers.

In a social studies class Monday an ice-breaking trivia game mixed questions about state and local government with information about the number of assistant principals at RHS and whether backpacks are allowed in the classroom. In a science class, students got an introduction to the scientific method, but also asked questions about acceptable clothing and learned what the consequences will be if they take out their phone or their iPod during class.

Students also get to have fun. One of the four classes students cycled through Monday was an activity period in which they learned hip-hop moves from dance teacher Christina Morris.

Later in the four-week session students will spend time on service projects like picking up trash around the school and turning t-shirts into diapers for a local church project. They will also tour Dakota County Technical College.

"We want our ninth graders coming in to start thinking about post-secondary planning right away," Kelly-Carroll said.

Getting up early and spending half the day sitting in a classroom likely doesn't seem like most students' idea of summer fun, but Kelly-Carroll said there never seems to be much trouble getting kids to come back. Smiles and laughter during Monday's dance activity seemed to suggest students were enjoying themselves. For students, the sessions are as much a social gathering as they are an academic experience. With students coming together from Rosemount and Scott Highlands middle schools it's a chance for students to get to know some of their new classmates.

It's too early to provide much conclusive evidence the Freshman Academy makes a significant difference in students' academic careers, but Kelly-Carroll said early signs are good. It appears there are fewer ninth graders failing classes than there were before the program began.

And Kelly-Carroll said students report finding value in the sessions. They say are better prepared for their course work when school starts in the fall, and they are more comfortable in a school that might otherwise seem really big and a little intimidating.

"I look at it as, it's about building relationships with kids," Kelly-Carroll said. "Most of the kids we see in Freshman Academy, I don't teach them, but they still come to me because they got to know me during 16 days during the summer.

"I just think overall it's a win-win for everybody."