Jessica Butler had just one word to describe how she felt as she walked through the doors of Harlem High School on Tuesday night: "Nervous."
Jessica and her mother, Lueneal Butler, were among about 230 eighth-grade families involved in the Rising 9th Grade Advisement sessions at the high school.
Twenty-six teachers, counselors and administrators volunteered to meet with incoming freshmen and their families, offering 30-minute counseling sessions to chart out a high school career path. There were also tours of the school, displays from vocational programs and representatives from Augusta State University and Augusta Technical College on hand to talk to students and parents.
"The way they have everything set up is pretty wonderful," Lueneal Butler said.
Ronda Hampton, a senior at Harlem High School and a National Honor Society member, was one of the students who volunteered to give tours of the school.
"When I started out, we had an open house where we got to meet our teachers, but we didn't get the student perspective on things. We had to rely on our brothers or sisters to tell us what classes to take. This is the information we should have had when we started," she said.
The orientation program, which began three years ago, is growing in popularity. Last year, about 57 percent of the rising ninth-graders and their families participated, but this year 90 percent were expected, said Margaret Shearouse, an art teacher and a member of the school's Advisory Committee.
"Parents typically get advice from other parents at the ball field. But what might have been true for somebody else's child two years ago may not be true now because the graduation requirements have changed so much," Shearouse said.
Typically, ninth-graders are required to enter high school and decide immediately whether they want to take vocational or college-preparatory courses. At Harlem High School, students are allowed to delay that decision for a year.
As part of Harlem's High Schools That Work program, all ninth-graders take college-prep courses, so, no matter what educational path they decide on in 10th grade, they will be on track with the courses they need to graduate.
The High Schools That Work program is a national reform model meant to help reduce the dropout rate and give students information that can be applied on the job.
One component of that program is the Advisory Committee. Its members are teachers, counselors and administrators who advise students, make sure they are taking the right courses and are on track to graduate.
At Harlem, the committee members are Carla Shelton, Mary Campbell, Barbara Howard, Kathy Lyles, Pat Wiggins, David Thibodeau, Margaret Shearouse, Ed James and Patty Niece.
"They (students) can come to you with things that they may not talk to a teacher about," Shearouse said. "We are advocates to make sure they get help or encouragement if they need it and to make sure there's communication with the parents."
Advisory Committee members are assigned 12 to 15 students to work with during the school year and are specially trained for the role.
"We are a safety net, and that net is so big that there is no way these students will fall through," Shearouse said.
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