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FRESHMAN FEARS ERASED
PROGRAM HELPS STUDENTS ADJUST

At age 14, Emily Pulli is about to adjust to a sprawling new school, greater responsibilities and the need to hustle home from soccer practice at 6 p.m. to tackle several hours of homework.

To help prepare Emily and 336 other incoming freshmen, Clarence High School this week launched an unusually comprehensive orientation program that could spark major changes in the way local schools guide students through the often difficult transition from middle school to high school.

While most schools wrap up their orientation sessions in a few hours or a half-day, Clarence freshmen are attending five days of workshops, meetings and social events.

Like many high school freshmen throughout the area, they are getting their schedules and their lockers, taking tours of the building, booting up the school computers and meeting classmates.

But it's the extras that make the Clarence effort stand out. District teachers are leading classes on time management, study skills, individual responsibility, critical thinking and where to seek help for personal or academic problems. Freshmen are continually accompanied by student leaders from the senior class, who are offering assistance, advice and friendship.

"It's a much higher level of orientation," Thomas Coseo, district superintendent, said of the two-hour daily sessions. "It's not unlike the orientation programs that many colleges provide for their incoming freshmen."

The pilot program has already caught the attention of other local districts.

"I think it's an outstanding idea," said Neal Miller, principal of Williamsville East High School. "This is certainly something we'll all keep a close eye on."

James Dempsey, principal of Grand Island High School, said his biggest concern is for "freshmen who go from being king of the hill to a new school where they're suddenly the new kid on the block."

In Clarence, history teacher Michael Keil urged about 20 freshmen Tuesday to work past that change in status and to approach both academic and extracurricular activities with passion and purpose.

"You don't receive an education," he said. "You pursue it. You hunt it down. Whatever talent you have, this is the place to out it. You've got four years where a great core of your personality is going to be formed."

Down the hall, Elizabeth Khangi, a business teacher, told students that time management is a crucial element of success.

"Do the hardest things first," she said. "What is your first priority? Academics -- then comes everything else."

Keith Dworak, a freshman, said the orientation is getting him past some initial jitters.

"You get more comfortable with the school," he said. "When I first came here, it was so big and scary and stuff. They're helping you through."

Emily Pulli said the classes are giving her confidence in her ability to handle tougher work and a tight schedule.

"It really makes you realize what you need to put first," she said.

Because of the academic demands of high school, students who fall behind at the start can have a rough time catching up, said Joseph F. Gentile, principal of Clarence High School.

"We thought: 'What can we do to make the environment better, to help kids succeed?'" he said. "We're always looking for ways to improve up-front, to be proactive."

Although attendance is voluntary, 93 percent of the Clarence freshmen are taking part, and additional "walk-ins" are showing up every day. The program will cost the district about $10,000, including bus transportation for students, and Gentile said it's worth every penny.

Katie Zimmerman and Amy Kohout, seniors who are coordinating the student volunteers, said the goal is to have freshman show up confident and secure on the first day of class.

"Coming into a new building is scary enough," said Kate, the Student Council vice president. "I want them to be on the same page as everyone else. I want them to be acclimated, and not like visitors."

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