The SEL Blog
October 2017

How SEL Can Make High School a Little Less Scary

By Jaime MacEwen

The start of high school can be a challenging time for many students. They are left to navigate a new environment, new people and new experiences. Often, the social distractions of high school can hinder students’ academic progress. Studies show that when a student fails in ninth grade, they are more likely to drop out of high school. The Freshman Seminar program is a course at Cumberland Regional High School in Bridgeton, New Jersey that aims to ease our students’ transition into ninth grade.

When students start their first day of freshmen year, they are coming to us from one of five sending districts. The selection of students enrolled in the Freshman Seminar course is based on teacher recommendation, grades, attendance and test scores. Roughly sixty students are selected for the course each year. The course meets for 84 minutes daily for 90 days.

Freshman Seminar focuses on orientation to high school, maintaining grades, time management, goal setting, organization, study skills, career exploration and employability. The course facilitates positive outcomes by supporting the development of social and emotional learning competencies as well as strategies that promote appropriate behavior, academic success, improved school attendance and on-time graduation.

The curriculum I teach in class was created by Joe Hoedel, Character Development & Leadership ( The lessons hone in on one character trait each week — attitude, preparation, perseverance, integrity, courage, responsibility or empathy. Each trait is taught by reading about a historical or contemporary role model that exemplifies that trait. Group and individual projects are embedded to encourage the development of effective communication and presentation skills. Our culminating event is Role Model Day. Students write letters of gratitude to share with important people in their lives.

The Freshman Seminar program at CRHS also partners freshmen with role model Senior Mentors. The Senior Mentors work with the freshmen on character and leadership development. Senior students are chosen to be mentors based on their character, grades and involvement in school activities. These are the leaders in our school that can provide guidance and feedback to freshmen students. The Senior Mentors are required to attend a 3-day summer training to prepare them for the unique experience. The relationships forged between the Senior Mentors and the freshmen are the heart of the program and a major reason for its success.

The benefits of this innovative program are not limited to the freshmen. The Senior Mentors often express the impact the program has had on them. They craft their leadership style, explore their strengths and weaknesses, push boundaries and make lifelong connections while giving back to the school community that fostered their own success.

I love to hear of unique ways the influence of this program goes beyond the classroom. It is so gratifying when a Senior Mentor tells me about attending his mentee’s Quinceañera and feeling like a proud father, students update me about what their Senior Mentors are up to in college, and most of all, when freshmen formerly in the program become Senior Mentors themselves!

During the 2016-2017 school year, with the help of a NoVo Social Emotional Learning Innovation Fund Award, our students were able to take part in a team building day at a local ropes course. Relationships between Senior Mentors and freshmen students were both sparked and cemented. Goals were achieved. Fears were overcome. Students talked about it all semester. In addition to providing this team-building opportunity, we were  able to incorporate an incentive program to motivate and reward positive behavior and academic success.

This coming school year promises to be even better! Cumberland Regional High School was awarded a NoVo Social Emotional Learning Innovation Fund Award for a second year. We will be able to continue our work of incorporating SEL into the classroom. Our goal is to expand and enhance our current projects and add a new project. The new addition will be a family event. We plan to hold a family night to engage those with the closest influence on our students’ development outside of school. I’ve had the privilege of teaching this course for five years now and I’m looking forward to the continued success of our program and our students.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Jaime MacEwen is a NoVo SEL Innovation Fund Teacher Awardee