Improving the Transition from Middle Grades to High School: Promising District Initiatives in Coaching and Planning

Improving the Transition from Middle Grades to High School: Promising District Initiatives in Coaching and Planning
Improving the Transition from Middle Grades to High School: Promising District Initiatives in Coaching and Planning

The successful transition for students from the middle grades to high school is a critical component of their likelihood to graduate.  However, this is precisely the time when many students fall through the cracks.  This forum, the final one in the series on “Improving the Transition from Middle Grades to High Schools,” detailed the work of Lowndes County Schools in Georgia and how they are implementing the state’s Middle and High School Graduation Coach Initiative to help students transition successfully from the middle grades to high school.  The forum also highlighted the use of a new course for incoming freshman, called “Keystone – The Freshman Experience,” in Duval County, Florida, that helps high school students to become career-focused while learning how to make effective decisions about their futures.


Dr. E. Steven Smith, Superintendent, Lowndes County School District, opened the forum by discussing graduation and dropout rates. “We know that about 78.4% of high school students graduate. What I’m worried about is the 26.6% that aren’t graduating,” stated Smith. In 2006, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue championed the High School Graduation Coach initiative to address the needs of potential dropouts. Smith explained that each high school in the state of Georgia has one graduation coach regardless of population size and coaches help to identify at-risk students and work with this population to succeed. The initial success of the high school graduation coaches has served as an impetus to implementing middle school graduation coaches in an effort to assist students exhibiting early warning indicators of dropping out.

Dr. Smith attributes much of the success of graduation coaches to the data collection that guides the coaches’ work. “It holds us accountable. We analyze the data and we disaggregate the data. Our department of education also looks at this to see where we’ve gone with our students,” stated Smith.


Wes Taylor, Principal, Lowndes High School (LHS), highlighted the fact that students at LHS are encouraged to engage in at least two extracurricular activities. Taylor emphasized, “Being involved in at least two extracurricular activities increases the chance that they will succeed. They are able to establish a relationship with more than one adult on campus. This all ties in together.” Taylor stressed that connections to the school, via extracurricular activities and adult relationships, are vital to keeping students engaged and on-track to graduate.

Taylor discussed the LHS graduation test scores of all test takers, comparing results of 2004 and 2007.  “On the surface, it looked like our school was good. Everything looked like it was going well. But we were not doing well overall. We hadn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP),” stated Taylor. Although Taylor met some resistance to change, needed changes were made to improve graduation rates with the use of graduation coaches, teacher tutoring, and holding students more accountable for their success.

Recognizing the need to improve the transition from middle school to high school, LHS works with feeder middle schools in various capacities. LHS implements a vertical teaming strategy in which they look at curriculum maps with middle schools to determine areas of need and repetition. In addition, Taylor believes that “double dosing” is necessary in situations where students need more support.  For example, when mathematics test scores indicate that a student needs improvement in math, the student would take two math classes simultaneously. Taylor expressed that “robbing electives” to free up time in a student’s schedule for double dosing is necessary. He further explained that double dosing is not a requirement and that parents can opt out if they choose to do so after speaking to the school counselor, assistant principal, and the principal. To further improve the transition from middle schools to high school, LHS conducts early warning assessments, campus tours for rising 9th graders, family nights to engage parents, orientation for students, and a day where high school teachers go to the middle school to discuss what they expect from students. Middle school teachers also go to the high school to learn from 9th graders, and to understand what has helped ease the transition.

In addition, LHS graduation coaches utilize disaggregated data to create plans of action. Coaches use available resources and work with students in areas such as attendance, grades, and behavior. Taylor commented, “I have seen graduation coaches become an advocate or an ally for students that didn’t have anybody. That student then knows that there is someone that cares about them. That personalization goes a long way.” Taylor also attributes their success to having the “right people” including dedicated teachers to confront the brutal facts. Furthermore, Taylor expressed the value of having a broad-based group of educational agencies and organizations that coalesced to communicate and promote cross-agency work on teaching quality.


Beverly S. Strickland, Director of High School Programs, Duval County Public Schools (DCPS), discussed the implementation of their freshman transition course entitled “Keystone.” As part of the DCPS High School Redesign (2006-2007), school counseling services were increased and several enrichment programs were implemented such as College Board’s SpringBoard English and Math program and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. In addition, Keystone was implemented as a new graduation requirement for all incoming freshman. Judy Cromartie, Guidance Supervisor of DCPS, was quoted as stating, ‘We are hoping this early connection in high school (Keystone course) will result in greater academic success in grade nine, where we currently have our largest failure rate.

Keystone was created using many of the Standards for Freshman Transition Classes created by Dr. Rebecca Dedmond of The George Washington University (GWU). The Freshman Transition Initiative works with middle or high school principals, teachers, curriculum developers and school counselors to increase student retention and the success rate of the youth in schools. Strickland explained Dr. Dedmond’s philosophy that the 9th grade is a significant year in determining a student’s future and that individuals are not motivated to work hard until they understand the benefits of their efforts. “We thought [the standards] were very powerful. It helps them understand the value of their work,” stated Strickland.

Strickland described Keystone as a course to help 9th grade students make a successful transition into high school, gain the skills for success in postsecondary education, and set goals for the future. Four themes shape the course:

  • Where Am I?
  • Demonstrate strategies for making good grades.
  • Learn how to get the most out of high school.
  • Establish key people in school who can provide support/assistance.
  • Learn the rules and consequences of specific behavior.
  • Understand the relevance of high school to future success.

    1. Who Am I?

      • Determine skills and abilities through formal assessments and surveys.
      • Identify learning style, talents, and strengths.
      • Understand skills needed to be successful academically and in the workplace.

    2. What Do I Want?

      • Learn personal budgeting and its impact on future lifestyle.
      • Analyze the effect of interests upon education/ career.
      • Recognize impact of career choice on lifestyle.
      • Recognize impact of education on personal lifestyle.
      • Demonstrate skills to locate, analyze, and apply career information.

   3. How Do I Get There?

      • Build a personal budget using projected training, job, and lifestyle.
      • Apply skill sets required to succeed in classroom and workforce.
      • Know process for career planning and education preparation.
      • Research college/university entrance requirements and course offerings.
      • Demonstrate importance of productive work habits and attitudes.
      • Know the process used to locate and secure employment.
      • Create vision of the future and develop a 10-year educational and career plan.
      • Write career and college research report.

Currently, DCPS and GWU are assessing and developing evaluation methods of the Keystone course. Strickland commented that important factors in creating the Keystone course has been selecting the “right” teacher, providing professional development for faculty and staff, conducting weekly school visits, developing professional learning communities, and making yearly revisions based on feedback.

Highlights from the Question and Answer session

A question was asked regarding the relationship and the difference between graduation coaches and school counselors. A respondent, Allen Fort of the Georgia State Department of Education, explained that they have been working to prepare coaches and counselors to work together. Because coaches are not trained counselors, it was important to make sure that coaches didn’t become counselors. Ideally, coaches and school counselors would work together. A difference between a coach and a school counselor is that the coach’s work is based on a student’s attendance, grades, and discipline referrals. Coaches examine why a student may be failing.  If the challenge has to do with family issues, the school counselor would then help the student.


Dr. E. Steven Smith was appointed Superintendent of the Lowndes County School District in Valdosta, Georgia six years ago. Under his leadership, the district has experienced record high student achievement, been recognized for making system- wide AYP for two years in a row, named an Exemplary School System by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and awarded the title of a Distinguished School System by the Georgia Department of Education.

A lifelong educator, Smith spent most of his teaching career in Bibb County where he served as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal over an eighteen-year period. In 2000, he was named Superintendent of Pulaski County Schools. A year later he earned his Doctor of Philosophy Degree from Georgia State University where he received the J. Everette DeVaughn Outstanding Student Award.

His distinguished career in Bibb County was highlighted by a feature story in the Macon Telegraph entitled, “Finishing First,” written by Bill Boyd.  He is also featured in Joe McDaniel’s book entitled; The Boys of 31206, which features several successful graduates of A.R. Willingham, school for boys, in Macon, Ga. In July of 2007, Dr. Smith was appointed by Governor Sonny Perdue as a member of the Board of Control of the Southern Regional Education Board.  He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Valdosta State University.

Wes Taylor is completing his fifth year as Principal at Lowndes High School located in Valdosta, Georgia, 18 miles north of the Florida state line on Interstate 75.  He has served as a high school principal for each of the previous 17 years (9 in Florida and 7 in Georgia).  Mr. Taylor has been instrumental in creating a positive climate of high expectations for the students and staff alike at LHS.  He has also led a reform initiative that has resulted in significant improvement in student achievement as measured by the Georgia High School Graduation Tests and double digit increases in the Graduation Rate.  Lowndes High School achieved Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time in 2006 and again in 2007.

Beverly S. Strickland is the Director of High School Programs for Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. In this position Mrs. Strickland coordinates the specification and intent of high school programs with a focus on High School Redesign. She provides leadership in implementing smaller learning communities, high school major areas of interest, the 9th grade transition Keystone Course, professional learning communities, and the EXCELerator Schools Model Reform grant in collaboration with College Board.   Mrs. Strickland works directly with Duval County’s “Turnaround” schools through involvement in planning and implementation of a rigorous instructional program.  Beverly previously served as Director of Middle Schools where she served on the Middle School Reform Task Force for the Florida Department of Education.

Beverly Strickland received her undergraduate degree from Trevecca Nazarene University and received her master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of North Florida.  Her professional career began as a classroom teacher and instructional specialist.   From 1992 – 1994 Beverly worked with the Alliance for Tomorrow’s Teachers and University of North Florida as a Resident Clinical Faculty.  In this position Beverly supervised 18 students each semester in their teaching internship at the school site. This intensive on-site professional development was a powerful introduction to teaching for beginning teachers. Mrs. Strickland assumed the responsibility of directing curriculum and instruction for grades K-12 in Clay County School District in Orange Park, Florida in 1994. In this position she facilitated the development of a course progression through the grades relevant to content standards and performance expectations and directed training for teachers and administrators as well as facilitated monthly curriculum meetings with school principals for the purpose of curriculum articulation, discussion of best practices and to foster collegiality and improved educational results.


More information about the Graduation Coach Initiative can be found here

More information about the Freshman Initiative can be found here

Dr. E. Steven Smith
Lowndes County Schools
1592 Norman Dr.
Valdosta, Ga, 31601

Wes Taylor
Lowndes High School
1112 N Saint Augustine Rd
Valdosta, GA 31601

Beverly Strickland
Director High School Programs
Duval County Public Schools
4037 Boulevard Center Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32207-2832


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.