July 9, 2020
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Freshman Foundations: Rancho’s homegrown solution to ninth grade woes

By: Lanny Lowery
November 9, 2018

Since Socrates walked the streets of Athens attempting to educate the young Greeks, teachers have been dealing futilely with the ninth grade problems: tardies, cuts, misbehaviors and low grades. From my first faculty meeting thirty-eight years ago to my last one in the spring of 2018, these woes have been discussed by Rancho Cotate teachers. Many different solutions have been tried for one problem or another and some things have been effective. Now, Rancho Cotate teachers are taking on all of these issues in a very organized manner. A work in progress, Freshman Foundations, taking advantage of the new block schedule, seeks to improve the high school experience for all ninth graders.

Dr. Louis Ganzler, the new principal, explained the program as being something “organically developed” which in laymen’s terms means that the teachers, administrators and counselors created their own model to specifically address the needs of the ninth graders at Rancho Cotate. Ganzler stated the aim of the course: “The purpose is to help shape student culture. We expect students will be exposed to knowledge and skills that will help our students be successful.” He described the general breakdown of the course as being divided into four sections, each a quarter long course covering career, social/emotional, health and academic foundations.

Ganzler stated the goal for Foundations: “Each section is designed to give students what they need in order to take advantage of their high school experience.” Last year teachers expressed concerns regarding freshmen preparedness as expectations for student achievement becomes so much higher. The creation of Freshman Foundations is administrators’ and teachers’ ambitious response to the concerns of most of the staff at the high school.

The principal believes that this is one of the most important courses on the master schedule. One priority was to place this course at the end of each day, so that all sixteen classes occur either fourth or eighth period, as the block alternates days. Each freshman will have completed all four parts of the wheel by the end of the year. So one student could begin with Career for first quarter, and then have AVID second quarter, Social Emotional third quarter and finish the year with Health for fourth quarter. Thirteen different teachers instruct the sixteen sections and each teacher presents the course four times during the school year that allows for refinement and specialization.

Last summer ten members of the faculty took on the responsibility of developing the four components of Freshman Foundations. Rocky Schumann and Kirk Amos created the digital citizenship lessons, and Erin Lane organized the career lessons, which use Naviance, a system to aide in career exploration. Anna Leemon developed the health component, designed to address sex education, personal health and addiction issues, particularly nicotine. A team of teachers, Amy Riebli and Valerie Ganzler, worked on Academic Foundations, concentrating on AVID Strategies. A psychologist, Rebecca Greenwell, and a counselor, Mishale Ballinger, and an English teacher, Alex Coursey, put together the Social Emotional Foundations course that explores peer relationships and social/emotional issues.

Each course will allow at least thirty minutes per day to offer structural support, best translated to mean time to work on homework and receive help. Each team developed course units that contained daily lessons.

About the teachers, Ganzler said, “They are a great cross-section of the school representing experienced and beginning teachers, from five different departments: Social Studies, English, Math, Science and World Languages.”

The course has been fully developed by the Rancho Cotate staff and relies on no model. The cost of the course equals the price of two teachers, a small amount to pay considering all of the dividends that may result for students over the three succeeding years in high school. The Foundations’ team will measure the effectiveness of the program in a number of ways that will equate to academic success. For the short term, Ganzler has some quantitative standards for freshmen: reduction in referrals, discipline incidents and Ds and Fs.

If all of the teachers are as excited as science teacher Anna Leemon is about the potential of Freshman Foundations, the positive energy will be epidemic. Leemon, a first year teacher who has just completed graduate work from Stanford, gushes with enthusiasm as she touts the program: “Science is really important, but the personal health class is so clearly relevant to the students. Their passion is clear.”

Not only have these educators created something new to help Rancho students succeed but they have put the high school ahead of the legislative curve. Principal Ganzler knows that the California lawmakers plan to put more of the burden to deal with social and emotional problems on the schools. Freshman Foundations looks to this probability, yet more importantly, looks to helping students to succeed.