Freshwoman Academy students, from left to right, Jennifer Amaro, 15, Diana Dillard, 15, and teacher Mary Jane Simon, discuss freshman life during a Feb. 6 session at St. Joan Antida High School, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

In some high schools, freshmen fall through the cracks. Taking a look at some alarming statistics – that as many as 30 percent of ninth graders do not advance to 10th grade in urban schools – St. Joan Antida has created a program aimed at sealing those fissures by building a strong academic, social and emotional foundation for the first-year students.

Called Freshwoman Academy, the program is in its second year. School Sister of St. Joan Antida Jennifer Daul, guidance counselor at the school, explained the need for such a program at St. Joan Antida. “Our students come from 50-60 feeder schools. The social adjustment is extreme … they come from many kinds of academic backgrounds.”

Sr. Jennifer explained some of the components of the program including community building, academic rigor, personal development and a core team of teachers that checks student development every other day. “We provide the tools for them to succeed,” said Sr. Jennifer.

The program, developed over the summer of 2008, was not modeled after any other, but was meant to address St. Joan’s specific needs. Katie Nash, an algebra teacher on the planning committee, explained that these kinds of programs can take many months to complete. “We took only a summer to plan.” The basic goal was simple, according to Nash: “What can we do to make things better?”

Among the tools the Freshwoman Academy uses skillfully are “elements of project-based learning,” said Sr. Jennifer. “Students are put in small groups to do projects. They need to work effectively in groups because that is the workplace.”

Sr. Jennifer explained that the idea is to “create a learning community in which the students are responsible for their success.” And she has been pleased with the results. “The kids have been responsive, far exceeding expectations.”



Santiea Givens, 15, raises her hand to participate in a Freshwoman Academy session Feb. 4 at St. Joan Antida High School, Milwaukee, with classmate Adrieanna Paskel, 14, on the right. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

Nash said the teachers have “essential questions every day. What do we expect to accomplish that day?”

Another major component of the Freshwoman Academy is personal development. “They need to be responsible for their own behavior,” said Sr. Jennifer. To do this, the school has adopted “shape shifting.” Sr. Jennifer said that shape shifting means to “adapt within the social situations, to tap into different skills to be appropriate. For instance, at a party it’s OK to laugh and be loud, but there are times you need to be quiet and reserved.”

In order to be successful, the students have to buy into the idea. Sr. Jennifer has seen students use the shape-shifting tool effectively among themselves. “They check each other,” she said.

Perhaps the most important part of the Freshwoman Academy at St. Joan Antida is the Core Team – math, science, English, and social studies teachers who meet every other day to discuss student needs and development. “The hope is that 98 percent will pass the core classes,” said Nash.

A listening ear is always just a few steps away at St. Joan Antida. Freshman Diana Dillard likes the fact that Sr. Jennifer is accessible. “She is right down the hall,” said Diana, adding, “Our advisory is a time to talk to each other in a safe place to tell your problems to people who understand and care about all of you.” Sr. Jennifer said the frequent meetings of the Core Team allow flexibility. “We can respond to little problems before they become big problems,” she said, explaining that last year, students were disrupting class with cell phones and iPods. “We were able to address the situation the following week,” she said.

The Core Team also helps teachers get to know the freshmen. “The young women realize that we are responsive to their needs, not turning a blind eye,” said Sr. Jennifer. Nash echoed that sentiment: “I have time to spend with them and they get to know that we care.”CSW10Logo_rgbHR

Dalyla T. Blakely doesn’t feel her first year at St. Joan is passing her by. “The teachers let you take your time. They are there when you need them and help. When you don’t get something, they sit there with you until you get it, they just don’t move on. They are there for the students.”

Freshmen Dekeytra Dillard (Diana’s cousin) and Gabriela Franco also appreciate the benefits of the Freshwoman Academy. “My teachers are always willing to help. They teach us things we need to know in order to get out of school and succeed,” said Dekeytra.” Added Gabriela, “The academy is great because they spend individual time on the freshwomen.”

Nash said the regular meetings of the Core Team teachers ensure that there’s consistency from class to class.

The Freshwoman Academy seeks to create school spirit through various activities. “It might be having an assembly to celebrate good attendance,” said Nash. Recently the girls went on a field trip to Wisconsin Lutheran College. An activity such as this “opens their eyes” to the many opportunities that await them, said Nash.

Brenda Rivera appreciates that the Freshwoman Academy offers so many choices “and the fact that we are getting ready for college. We do lots of fun projects in eighth hour.  We even have tutoring after school so that we can get the help we need.”

Freshmen at St. Joan Antida have an extra period Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 3:18 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sr. Jennifer explained this extra period includes “life skills seminars with partners like the Boys & Girls Clubs and Wells Fargo Bank.”

Also available is tutoring on Mondays. An every other week Saturday pilot program proved to be a huge success. “At the first one, 1/3 of the student body was there. The attendance has been incredible,” said Nash.

In addition to the Freshwoman Academy, first-year students at St. Joan Antida also benefit from school-wide initiatives such as a new computer grading system that helps teachers monitor students progress, small group advisory programs and tutoring.

In the Freshwoman Academy, St. Joan Antida has taken great pains to get to know the freshmen, monitor their progress closely, instill a sense of responsibility for their behavior and learning and create a sense of community.

Nash says the students learn early on that they are not invisible. “We take the time to make sure they know what we expect of them.”