Calvin Kellams didn’t know what to expect when he walked into Meghan Streit’s classroom at Monticello High School last August. Kellams is one of a dozen students in Streit’s freshman seminar course, a new graduation requirement for Albemarle County students that went into effect in the 2018-19 school year.
After a year in the class, Kellams said he learned study skills and how to cope with stress, forged strong bonds with his classmates and worked on service projects.
“It’s helped us go through freshman year with things that are more focused on our minds rather than our academic success,” he said. “Because you can’t really be successful just from getting an A on your math test.”
Freshman seminar — or “freminar” as Streit and her students call it — is designed to prepare students for success in high school, to develop their social and emotional skills and to set academic and career goals. Students also participated in service projects in the community.
In the last year, seminar teachers tweaked and refined the program in response to feedback and their own experiences, Streit said. Work is now underway for a Freshman Seminar 2.0 next year.
Streit, other seminar teachers and division officials presented an update on the new course to county School Board members at a recent meeting.
“The mission and goals of freshman seminar are worthy ones that need our continued attention and dedication year in and year out,” said Jay Thomas, director of secondary education for Albemarle County Public Schools. “Working with classroom teachers throughout the year, we have discussed lessons learned about what worked well and what needs more attention.”
On a recent Wednesday, students in Streit’s class painted paper leaves and reflected on how the year changed them. But Kellams said the class isn’t “all fun and games.”
“Most of the class is focusing on really important aspects of life that are very, very useful in our life that academic classes fail to focus on,” he said.
Other students said freshman seminar provided a nice break during the school day when they didn’t have to stress about grades. The elective is offered pass/fail.
The course has three components — classroom meeting, academic advisory and social and emotional lessons. Teachers in the division worked together to develop the curriculum.
Streit told School Board members that the seminar course also helped students to learn soft skills such as collaborating in a more professional environment.
“The freshman seminar class really became an incredible place to house all of these skills,” she said. “Because of that, we’re really excited about the potential that holds for students going forward.”
Looking ahead to next school year, Freshman Seminar 2.0 most likely will include more time for academic advisory, which covers study skills and monitoring grades, according to the presentation.
“Students said, ‘we want more study time, more academic advisory,’ and we heard that,” said Lynn Define, who taught a seminar course at Western Albemarle High School. “We are building it in next year … So, while no system is perfect, we’re listening, and we’re trying to make it better.”
Streit, who coordinated freshman seminar at Monticello, charged other seminar teachers at the start of school year to “know your students well and have fun with them.”
Nearly half of the students who responded to a recent division survey said freshman seminar regularly gave them the chance to build positive relationships with their peers and teacher, as well as to develop a sense of community within the seminar.
Half of the county’s freshmen responded to the survey, which asked them how frequently they were given the opportunity to work on nine aspects of the class.
About a quarter of those who responded said they regularly had opportunities to work on their transition to high school, to know themselves better as a learner, and to learn how to balance academic, social and emotional demands.
School Board member Steve Koleszar described the survey results as “OK, but not great.”
“Hopefully, as you continue and get that feedback, it will become a much more effective program,” he said.
Division officials and teachers acknowledged at the meeting that there was confusion among school counselors, parents and students at the beginning of the school year about what exactly freshman seminar was.
“No one really knew what it was going to be,” Kellams said. “It was kind of vague and no one was getting into specifics. I was just assuming that it was going to be a place that we were going to do structured worksheets or whatever.”
At Monticello, seminar teachers kicked off the year meeting their students at orientation and hosting a spaghetti dinner. They’ve also worked to build a culture of fun among the seminar classes by wearing matching T-shirts or singing songs in the hallways in between class periods.
“We’re creating for kids an understanding that freshman seminar is going to be different than average academic classes,” Streit said.
After a year of freshman seminar, Streit said teachers have done a better job of explaining the program to parents and students.
Streit will stay with her seminar students as they continue through high school. The sophomore iteration will be different, perhaps a monthly check-in, and focused on what 10th-graders need to know.
“It won’t be the same old thing,” she said. “If we did that, there would be mutiny.”
Katie Christie, a freshman seminar teacher at Albemarle High School, said she’s excited to stay with her students.
“... I will be able to watch these kids grow and have that relationship with them until they graduate,” she said.
School Board member David Oberg, whose daughter was a freshman at Western Albemarle High School this past year, thanked teachers and staff members for their work.
“I think this takes a lot of courage to do something like [this],” he said. “It’s brand new. This is something that it would be very easy for you guys not to do it, right? I appreciate everything you’ve put into it.”
In Streit’s classroom, a large black piece of paper covers a bulletin board and asks, ‘what is freshman seminar?’
Students said in written responses taped to the paper that the class is a place to be themselves, take a breath, relax and have fun.
“To me, freshman seminar is a safe place where you can trust others and let out stress,” one student wrote.
Kellams’ favorite part was the classroom community.
“There’s a lot of really good people here and there’s always someone to go to,” he said. “If you are having conflict with any other friends, you always know that you have this group of people to back you up.”
Monticello freshman Daxon Citron said she liked when the class would sit in a circle and talk.
“We had legitimate and mature discussions,” she said.
Echoing Kellams, Citron said the sense of community made freshman seminar great.
“We were comfortable with each other,” she said.
Streit said the students worked to build those relationships.
“You are to be credited with how much you reached out,” she told Citron.
Mirabel DeVita, a student in the class, said she wasn’t expecting to like freshman seminar as much as she did.
“It helped me have a good experience going into Monticello,” she said. “... It made life easier. It was somewhere to come where we were motivated to work and there was not as much pressure.”