It’s 8:05 on a weekday morning, and the students in a sunny room in Lake Shore High School look a little sleep-fogged.
Some sort through backpacks. A few stare into space.
This is their first class of the day. And it’s different.
“Write down confusing homonyms,” cheers their teacher, Jeffrey Connors, walking energetically around the room. “English is a confusing language, we have so many different words, confusing words, with different meanings.”
The kids scribble in their notebooks. Connors lets some of them text English usage lessons to their parents.
“If you’re going to text,” Connors tells his students, “text like you’re EDUCATED.”
Then Connors pops onto a piece of furniture and blares music while holding up flash cards showing parts of speech: comma, ellipses, hyphen. Students are now calling out answers, moving around.
“Let’s WAKE UP,” Connors urges them. “Let’s wake up for the day!”
Welcome to Lake Shore High School’s new class: Freshmen Seminar.
It’s mandatory for all freshmen in the district – 229 of them this year – and taught by one teacher.
The seminar forms part of a larger program called “Freshmen Academy” now in its fourth year at the high school. The aim is to make ninth grade a different experience for students.
And, by many accounts, it’s working.
“The transition to high school, is a non-issue anymore,” said James E. Przepasniak, superintendent of schools.
In the Freshmen Seminar class, students learn study skills, creative writing and critical thinking.
But they also learn things that go beyond the boundaries of the school.
These students are taught how to dress professionally – including lessons on properly ironing clothing.
They learn good hygiene and conversation skills.
They discuss how to use Facebook and social media wisely.
They learn to speak in public, before an audience.
And, they are required to call adults – or, at least teachers in ninth grade – by the courtesy titles “Mister” or “Ms.” instead of more casual terms.
“This is a life skills and a character-building class,” said Connors, a graduate of Lake Shore and St. Bonaventure University who has been teaching for eight years.
The program – and the seminar class – are winning praise outside the walls of the Southtowns school.
“It’s fantastic,” said Vincent Rinaldo, chairman of the department of middle and adolescent education at Niagara University.
Speaking of today’s adults, Rinaldo said: “Teenagers, the world they live in, it’s nothing like the world they grew up in. It’s incumbent on schools to teach these things. This should be part of our curriculum.”
One of the major goals is to create school spirit – and class pride – among the students.
It also aims to take some of the anxiety out of high school.
“It’s a scary thing, when you move to the high school,” said Przepasniak, adding that ninth graders “are still kids.”
In Connors’ classroom, a spacious area on the second floor of the school, students gather in the morning for together time before classes begin.
It’s a lounge atmosphere for getting homework done, talking to other students, and conferring with faculty, said Connors, a member of the family well-known in the Southtowns for owning Connors Hot Dog Stand in Angola on the Lake.
Then, the students disperse to their classes. Each one is enrolled in Connors’ seminar, which carries English credit but also covers a variety of other topics. Part of the year uses lessons drawn from the “seven habits of highly effective teens” template; another addresses teen stresses. Addictions including drug and alcohol abuse are discussed.
Lake Shore freshmen are now insulated within the academy framework, and administrators and faculty said that is a positive step.
Freshmen are clustered together in their own part of the high school building. They have teachers that solely educate freshmen. Their lockers are all in one area.
“The design of it is, it’s sort of a school within a school,” said Jeffrey Cervoni, who serves as freshmen principal in the program. “Everyone’s on the same page. They’re really working collaboratively. It’s the relationship they build with the kids – and the kids know all the teachers.”
Lake Shore is not the first high school to come up with the concept of an academy for freshmen.
But they are part of a movement among some schools of adopting such programs, said Julie Hoerner, principal of the high school.
“We’re on the curve,” said Hoerner.
The program was not modeled on any one other program, she said, but was built specifically to deal with the needs of Lake Shore’s incoming freshmen.
“Eighth graders would come to the high school, and they would struggle,” said Hoerner. ”Philosophically at the middle school academics are just different. The high school philosophy is, if you don’t pass you don’t earn the credit. The middle school philosophy is just different – it’s a team approach.”
Paul Vermette, a Niagara University professor who has seen the Lake Shore program in action, said that the program succeeds by focusing on the “social-emotional” learning that experts have long held would be beneficial to most students in their learning process.
Such learning often gets overlooked or ignored, especially in today’s classrooms, Vermette said.
“There’s been a tremendous understanding that what really matters is what happens in social-emotional learning,” Vermette said. “The kids who drop out of school, and the kids who don’t succeed, largely do so because they’re bored. They’re not engaged.”
“I was just enamored of what they are doing in their ninth-grade program,” he said of Lake Shore.
On a recent morning, the Freshmen Seminar students were working on the public speaking component of their curriculum. The students stood, one at a time, and delivered a short speech on pet peeves.
To prepare, the students had worked on improv scenes and skits, said Connors, who had a career in New York as an actor before returning to Lake Shore to teach.
“We did our thesis. We chose our pet peeve,” Connors told the class, speaking briskly and moving around the room. If they are nervous, he tells them, they can read their remarks sitting down. But, he urges them, “you’ve got to be able to look at people and scan the room.”
A student rises and speaks about not liking when people yell. Another one talks about how teachers use the word “kudos.” Another’s pet peeve is kids who “walk slow in the hallways.”
“Fantastic. Good job,” Connors tells them. “Real emotion!”
Later, students said that they enjoy the atmosphere that Connors creates in the classroom – as well as the subjects he covers.
“It’s really fun,” said Samantha Ambrose, 14. “We do lots of activities, teamwork activities. I’m a shy person, and it really helps me.”
Lucas Hayes, 15, said the seminar has been excellent, especially since he came to the district a few years ago from South Buffalo.
“It teaches us really good life skills,” said Hayes. “A lot of kids don’t know.”
Connors said his aims with the seminar are basic.
“My goal is to make sure they graduate on time, they know how to treat people, and they make good choices,” he said.
Does he think that knowing how to call an adult “Mr.” or “Ms.” will help students succeed in the real world?
Connors, who helps his family run their hot dog business in the summers, said the answer is yes.
“MISTER Connors. That’s mandatory,” he said. “I won’t answer them until it’s MISTER Connors. I guarantee that will be an edge for them.”
“It just shows respect. It’s life skill basics. I’m pretty old school.”
Some numbers at Lake Shore may reflect some of the successes of the academy and Freshmen Seminar, administrators said.
Three years ago, the high school’s rate of students graduating in four years was right around 70 percent, said Przepasniak.
By 2012, that number had climbed to 87 percent. And this year, a district spokeswoman said, the number is expected to be 90 percent.
“Last year, senior class, was the first group with the Freshmen Academy,” said Przepasniak. “The attention to detail, the attention to study skills, all those expectations are clearly defined for the kids. You’re not getting lost as a ninth grader. Those skills transfer to 10th, 11th and 12th grades.”
The new approach to freshman year has not resulted in increased costs, said Przepasniak. It was more about reallocating and rearranging resources.
“We’re expecting it to continue,” he said.
As for Connors, he said that he wants to work with freshmen for years to come.
“I would not trade this for anything,” Connors said. “This is the best high school in Western New York.”