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Words of wisdom for freshmen

PHOENIX — Three Phoenix High School students who had difficult freshman years shared their experiences and paths back to achievement early this month with 32 freshmen who failed more than two classes during their initial high school quarter.

Senior Martin Quiarte and juniors Connor Barnett and Jessica Waller all experienced trying ninth-grade years that left them behind on the graduation path. They were joined by junior Katie Mena during a 45-minute session Feb. 3 aimed at helping the students with their transition to high school.

"What we are doing with that small group is to make an intervention before they get in too deep," said Russan Pond, Diploma Center coordinator. "We're just doing some early intervention with the kids who are skipping and failing classes."

After Barnett and Waller talked about their own challenges, the freshmen split into four groups. They were asked how the school could help, how it differed from middle school and what advice they'd give eighth-graders. They also questioned the four mentors.

Principal Jani Hale came up with the idea of the mentoring approach. She always talks to middle-school students about the transition and takes student leaders with her. After last spring's session she realized younger students needed to hear from those who have "been there and done that" to overcome difficult first years.

Barnett, Mena, Quiarte, Waller, Hale and Pond met to discuss the session Monday, reflecting on the reactions of the freshmen. They set a second session for Feb. 24, after midterm grades are issued.

"It's harder than what they expected," said Barnett. "I told my group they are not on the top of the world. They are down at the bottom of the food chain. You've got to earn it, to work your way up."

Quiarte said younger students may want to show the world they are tough by acting like school doesn't matter.

"I tell them it's not worth it. Later on you're going to be mature, but school is going to take you on," said Quiarte.

"It's hard to get them to share," said Mena. Students facing tough classes told her the topics were boring rather than admitting they were difficult.

"It's a culture shock for many people "¦ you quit before you even start," said Waller, who sat out half of her freshman year in California thinking she would be moving soon. Waller has been in touch with a couple of kids from her group.

Students who fall behind during their early years can take online courses through the Diploma Center to get the credits they need for graduation. Barnett skipped a lot of classes during his freshman year at South Medford, but he's catching up through the center, said Pond.

"I like to call it Plan B. They have a chance to get back on track for graduation," said Pond. "It's not always easy."

Phoenix High is in its second year of offering an After School Academic Program where administrators and teachers help students with homework for an hour Tuesdays through Thursdays. The program provides bus rides home for students.

After the Feb. 3 session, Hale called parents of the freshmen. The next day, eight of them were at the after-school session. Phoenix has 200 freshmen this year.

Both administrators say peers may be heard more clearly than faculty and staff.

"I think those young kids will listen more and hear what they say," said Pond.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.