Making the Grade: Walker School ‘mini classes’ help freshmen find niches

Entering high school marks a major transition for many students, even if they’re surrounded by friends from middle school. Making that move is a bit smoother at The Walker School in Marietta, where the “Ninth Grade Experience” program redefines the first high school year by offering a range of opportunities designed to help students find their academic niches and develop strong, marketable skills.

“Beyond the fact that these students are adjusting to high school, we wanted a program specifically designed to set the stage for the four qualities of our graduates: critical thinking, collaboration, character and creativity,” said Michael Arjona, head of Walker’s upper school.

He’s been on the faculty for 15 years and is also a graduate.

“We started it last year with 90 students, and what we’re seeing now is a class that’s a lot more unified and connected to each other because they were all participating together in these efforts, regardless of what other classes they took.”

The program exposed first-year high schoolers to courses that had often been reserved for upper-class students, said Arjona. “In fact, when the juniors and seniors found out what we were offering, a lot of them were saying, ‘How come we don’t get to do that, too?’”

Those courses proved the most popular aspect of the program. Offered in the three weeks following the holiday break, the classes were incorporated into the usual schedule and introduced students to experiences in a variety of fields. The “mini classes” covered topics such 3D printing, cryptography, puppetry, epidemiology, economics and sports and public health, which was offered under the guise of “Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Patrick Wright, now a sophomore, spent his mini-session last January in the sports economics and zombie apocalypse classes.

“That last one was super cool,” said the 15-year-old. “We learned about diseases and how they’re treated, and we talked a lot about Ebola and how governments handle that. We also learned about hazmat stuff. I think it had a positive impact on my freshman year, especially because some of the classes helped us focus on something we want to follow in high school, like public health.”

Along with the mini-sessions, the program features two “cornerstone” days in the fall and again in the spring when students fan out into the metro area to work on developing those four key skills. For collaboration, there’s a team-building retreat; character involves community service projects. Creativity might be featured in a puppetry workshop or an improv comedy class; critical thinking is tapped through projects at locations such as Oakland Cemetery and Zoo Atlanta where students collected data and researched history that tied to their coursework.

Sophomore Mary Johnson worked on a community service project at Must Ministries in Marietta and took a mini-course called “How to be a Millionaire” that focused on financial basics. She said both experiences created a cohesive cohort of students.

“I got into high school not knowing anybody, and this was a great way to make friends,” she said. “At the same time, the classes were super informative. It was the perfect way to acclimate to high school.”

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