For ninth graders, the pressures of transitioning into high school can be overwhelming. They enter a new building with new teachers, classmates, and schedules to acclimate to. At the RISE Network, we know how crucial it is to support students through this transition, helping keep them on track to promote to tenth grade, and ultimately, graduate on time. One tried-and-true strategy for doing so is through quarterly on-track conferences.
During these conferences, students meet with a caring adult to discuss their goals, strengths, and growth areas. Conversations are guided by a question bank and a summary of the student’s behavior, attendance, and grades, known as a “BAG report.” As we look ahead to the remainder of the academic year, our school partners are currently engaged in these powerful one-on-one goal-setting conversations.
At Hartford Public High School (HPHS), on-track conferences have evolved over time. Initially, they were held by RISE Senior On-Track Coaches Jamie Meurer and Daemond Benjamin and the school’s Grade 9 teachers. Since then, school-wide efforts have expanded such that educators, staff, and security guards have become involved in conferences as well. The additional staff not only allowed HPHS to include all students, but also to address the need for facilitation by Spanish-speaking adults. The conferences, which used to take place during one class period, are now held over two days during which English and History teachers cede their instruction time for this purpose. The format has also changed, from students attending meetings in the library, to virtual conferences necessitated by COVID-19, to in-person meetings held throughout the school.
“On-track conferences allow us to have a more relaxed, low-stakes conversation,” says Benjamin. “It is about grades but it is also about students’ experiences. We work together to come up with a plan and steps to better their experience.”
Though concrete figures like grades and number of absences are reviewed during conferences, they also serve as an opportunity for adults to check in on students’ mental health. “On-track conferences allow us to do a light touch wellness check on the students,” says Meurer. “Information gathered from certain students may lead to follow-up with their educators on a deeper level.”
Conferences serve as a checkpoint about halfway through each marking period, giving students a voice and helping them generate a plan of action. Following conferences, Grade 9 teams allocate time to review student responses to identify themes and make their own plans for the marking period ahead.
“On-track conferences are important because they give adults the opportunity to model problem-solving for students,” says Benjamin. “We know how difficult the transition to Grade 9 is and we’re able to help students understand the mindsets necessary to be successful. It’s a great way to bond and build relationships with students.”
On-track conferences have become so deeply embedded into the culture of our core and most comprehensive network of schools, that this strategy has been scaled for implementation by other partner schools, such as Lincoln Middle School in Meriden and Weaver High School in Hartford. At Lincoln, administrators, counselors, and other staff have begun conducting on-track conferences with their Grade 8 students to prepare them for the Grade 9 experience in Meriden’s high schools. Weaver’s team recently incorporated conference questions soliciting student feedback, including asking when they feel most or least safe at school, reasons they do or do not enjoy coming to school, and ways in which they would like to be acknowledged. The Grade 9 team has developed a protocol to review student responses, identify themes, and consider implications based on these insights, such as finding more ways to recognize and celebrate students in the classroom.
The tried-and-true practice of on-track conferences may have evolved and expanded over the years, however, the very simple formula for success has remained the same: a student, a caring adult, some data, and a list of questions.
To learn more about on-track conferences, check out this video and our On-Track Conference Strategy Guide.