Leaders — student and adult — — aim to make freshmen feel at home, hoping they?ll stay long enough to graduate

Four days before school officially starts, more than 100 teachers and another 100 or so juniors and seniors are trying to line up across the South Medford High School gym. The column squeezes, bulges and curves to fit into what has turned out to be a very tight space.

Everyone has come early this Thursday morning to greet South's incoming freshman class. Some 440 new kids wait outside as the group straightens into two lines — a tunnel for freshmen to run through on their way to becoming South students.

Oh my God, says one of the first girls through the door.

She grabs for the arm of a classmate, who answers, This is so weird.

— — — To learn more
— For more information — about student retention programs in the county, contact the following:

— — — — Links program, pairing — — up freshmen with upperclassmen, South Medford High School. Call — — organizer Jerry Hagstrom, 776-8661. — — — Fresh Start, campout — — for freshmen, teachers, and upperclassmen, Ashland High School. — — Call organizer Mark Schoenleber, 482-8771. — — — Eagle Options, Eagle — — Point High School alternative program. Call Principal Mari Brabbin, — — 830-1300. — — — Armadillo Technical — — Institute, charter school in Phoenix. Call Phoenix-Talent School — — District, 535-1511. — — — Southern Oregon OnLine — — School, consortium of schools offering classes online. Call Marty — — Karlin at Jackson Education Service District, 776-6759. — — — — Well, weird isn't exactly the idea of this induction into high school, the first such ceremony of its kind in the area. Teachers, administrators and upperclassmen are trying to make freshmen feel welcome, feel as though from the very beginning they really are part of the school, part of the student body, important and appreciated.

That, the thinking goes, makes it more likely they?ll stick around until graduation.

Freshmen trot through the whooping, high-fiving gantlet. Looks of young horror melt into grins as students make their way to the end of the line.

Weird, kind of embarrassing, yeah, but their laugher betrays them: It was exciting, says freshman Ryan Thorson.

From the induction ceremony, freshmen spend the rest of the morning in small groups with a junior or senior, their designated Link Leader. Links not only lead freshmen orientation at South, providing a student's-eye view of high school life, they stay in touch with their freshmen all year.

They go to lunch together from time to time, they go to games, maybe shopping or a movie. If a problem arises, Links are an intermediary between teacher and student.

But considering the social and academic pressures of high school, a Link Leader's greatest contribution might be a smile or a wave in a crowded hallway between classes, or short visit during morning break.

— working to replace an old tradition of hazing, teasing and ignoring with a new tradition of acceptance and inclusion, school staff hope more freshmen will want to stay long enough to earn diplomas.

Making a good start is crucial, says Links organizer Jerry Hagstrom, a South English teacher.

It's in all the research, Hagstrom says as he watches school greeters wedge themselves into line. If students have a good first year, the greater the likelihood of success. That's legit; that's real; it's in all the research you read.

But South isn't the only high school bringing out new programs to get students to stick around after the novelty of the new school year wears off.

With economic surveys showing dire consequences for young adults who haven't earned a high school diploma, and vast opportunities for those who continue their education beyond high school, more secondary school teachers and administrators are thinking like Hagstrom: Part of the educator's job is getting students to want to be in school.

Ashland High School takes its freshmen on an overnight get-together with teachers and upperclassmen. Through games, team projects, skits and performances, students at Fresh Start form bonds before classes begin. This year, 292 freshmen spent Wednesday night in the Siskiyou Mountains with 75 sophomore, junior and senior student leaders.

Freshmen get a better foothold and they make incredible connections, says retreat organizer Mark Schoenleber, an Ashland High art teacher.

Fresh Start is in its sixth year.

Elsewhere, some programs are brand new. Eagle Point High School is introducing a new alternative school. Phoenix High School will share students with the county's first state-sanctioned charter school. And a consortium of seven high schools is pooling resources to take education out of the classroom and onto the Internet.

Eagle Point High School Principal Mari Brabbin says the myriad student-retention efforts recognize that the responsibility for many of the problems students encounter in school rests with the school, not the student.

Eagle Options will be Eagle Point High School's

second alternative program, after a career-oriented program at the Veterans Affairs Domiciliary in White City. Options will focus on dropouts and students who appear to be at risk for dropping out.

Specialized programs will serve teen parents — by providing child care — and offer advanced classes for students who are bored by school and seek greater challenge.

Renovations to a church building for the Options classes won't be finished in time for the start of school, so programs will be held in various locations in the community temporarily.

Armadillo Technical Institute

in Phoenix is registering home schooled students, dropouts and students who are about to drop out — all teens not being served by Phoenix High School. Homeschool parents have been helping organize a curriculum heavy on field work, learning through community service, and completion of major independent projects. Facilities will include a video production area.

At the charter school, teachers and students will be free of many of the constraints of public schools, yet students will be expected to pass Oregon standardized tests to earn the CIM, Certificate of Initial Mastery.

Southern Oregon OnLine School

will open its Web portal later this month with eight classes in English, history, math and science. All curriculum and research sources are on the Web. The school is starting a credit-recovery program, says coordinator Marty Karlin, supervisor of the Jackson Education Service District's computer and technology office. Participating schools will refer students who have failed traditional classes.

It's just another option, says Karlin.

Eventually, however, he expected the OnLine pilot program to expand to become a virtual high school for any student, moving the concept of student retention in a new direction. Where a program like Links tries to draw students closer to their school with special activities and close in-school personal relationships, Southern Oregon OnLine wipes away all the trappings of traditional school.

Eventually, all kids are going to have the option of where and when to take a class, Karlin predicts.

Amid the programs to keep students in school, Crater High School offers some of the first local proof that such efforts can succeed.

The Central Point school reorganized itself a few years ago strictly for the sake of student attitude. At the time, Crater had distinguished itself as having one of highest dropout rates in the state. 1998, the rate was one of the lowest in the county and below state average. In 1999, the rate dropped again, to 5.28 percent, compared to the average for Jackson County high schools of 7.74 percent and a state rate of 6.59 percent.

Critical to the program has been the personal contact of staff, says Crater career counselor Jay McRoberts.

I think that communication is a key, McRoberts says.

Classes of 16 are assigned to a daily homeroom period with a single teacher who will stay with that group all four years.

They develop some real friendships, family friendships, for the four years, McRoberts says. It gives the students an advocate right off the bat.

The career department also has played an import role by getting students to think about what they're going to do after graduation. focusing students on life after high school, teachers illustrate the integral part high school plays in students? future. McRoberts jokes that it's the light at the end of the tunnel approach: Students can see an end as well as a purpose to high school.