Freshman Student Support
A critical component in helping young people reach graduation
By Katie Rankin, Communications Specialist, Communities In Schools of Chicago
Brian Broccolo visits five high schools each week, a different one each day. He experiences student life across the city — the North Side, the West Side, and the Southwest Side. Although each school community and student population is unique, Brian’s goal remains the same. He supports freshman students as they transition from elementary school to high school.
In elementary school, your teachers and parents often take responsibility for checking in with you and motivating you to get your work done, Brian said. In high school, though, it becomes the student’s responsibility to find the drive to stay on track.
That’s where Brian comes in. He leads Communities In Schools of Chicago’s Freshmen Rising initiative and helps ninth graders identify their personal motivations and develop the skills they need to reach their goals.
Brian provides ongoing guidance and structured lessons around social-emotional learning to roughly 60 Chicago ninth graders at these high schools. The skills that Brian shares with students in Freshmen Rising help them thrive in ninth grade and reach high school graduation — a critical step in preparing young people for future success.
Research from the UChicago Consortium shows that if students are academically and socially on track in ninth grade, their odds of graduating improve significantly. Brian’s support is multidimensional. He meets with students in small groups, he conducts monthly grade check-ins, and he reaches out to the students’ families and support systems.
In his weekly small group sessions, Brian begins with an opening question, something to get the young people comfortable and talking. One question he chose recently was, “If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?” Students had to choose one item for a ‘selfish’ list (something they wanted) and one item for a ‘selfless’ list (something they wanted to give others).
Then, Brian shifts the conversation to a key topic to help the students succeed in school and life. The topics range from setting goals to finding their motivators to discovering strategies for academic success. Brian’s Freshmen Rising lessons are evidence-based. He uses the University of Chicago’s Success Bound curriculum to frame the discussion, but as the students get more comfortable with their school setting — and with each other — Brian lets them choose the topic most relevant to them. He closes each group with a question or a game, something that keeps the environment fun for the students.
Brian’s groups have a few standard norms that guide them. “Step up and step back,” for example, encourages more reserved students to speak up and more extroverted students to listen in, and a confidentiality norm, for example, says that what is said in group stays in group, but the other norms are dictated by the students.
The space that Brian creates in group is one that is consistent and encouraging, a space where they can share and receive feedback without judgment. It’s also a space that holds the students accountable to themselves. Through this process, Brian’s students have grown academically, socially, and emotionally. One student told Brian, “I came to school today because I had this.” Another said, “This is a safe space for me.” Another said, “I feel more motivated” because of Freshman Rising.
This month, Brian visited six elementary schools — all schools where Communities In Schools of Chicago has a dedicated staff member present. He met with eighth graders and shared the benefits of Freshmen Rising. To demonstrate the impact of the program, Brian asked his current Freshmen Rising students to share why it was meaningful for them. Here’s what they had to say:
After an entire school year in the Freshmen Rising program, Brian’s students have grown in their leadership abilities as well. Now during group discussion, they look to each other, instead of to Brian, to answer questions and offer advice. Brian is proud of the progress his students have made.
“I am confident that the activities, discussions, and most importantly, the community our Freshmen Rising students have built with one another have increased their independence and self-confidence, as well as their self-advocacy skills,” Brian said. “They are well-prepared for success in their sophomore year and beyond.”