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School Climate & Safety Opinion

How to Help Transfer Students Adjust

By Thelma B. Baxter & Bruce S. Cooper — January 25, 2011 3 min read
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On Jan. 5, Robert Butler Jr., a student who had recently transferred from Lincoln Southwest High School in Lincoln, Neb., to Millard South High School in Omaha, Neb., shot and wounded his principal, Curtis Case, and tragically killed the assistant principal, Vicki Kaspar. Then Butler, the son of an Omaha police detective, shot himself to death in his car two miles from the school.

As the Omaha World Herald reported: “Butler left a suicide note on his Facebook page just before the shootings. In it, he blamed the school and apologized for what he was about to do.”

Certainly, this is an extreme and terrible case. But students who transfer schools, particularly in the upper grades, are under extreme pressure: Will the other students welcome them? Even talk to them? How will they find their place and build new friendships at that age and stage?

Groups and cliques have formed, and the students who grew up together with their peer group have close personal relationships around their gender, race, skills, interests, extracurricular activities, and accomplishments. Try breaking in, getting attention, even learning these regular students’ names. The in-groups resist the out-groups, and transfer students are mostly alone with no groups readily to join. For adolescents, their peer group is their social “family” and is critical to their self-concept, personal identity, and sense of well-being.

How can schools welcome, serve, and help transfer students adjust and find their way in a new school? Our interviews with several experienced school administrators and guidance counselors found the necessary mix of conditions and approaches for working with transfer students—efforts that might have helped Robert Butler Jr. find his way and secure his place at Millard South High. Fellow students who knew Butler from his previous school remembered him as outgoing and friendly, and they had trouble reconciling their memories of him with his final actions.

Steps Schools Can Take

First, every school should have a transfer policy and program, clearly written and carefully constructed, to meet the needs of such students. A Transfer Student Handbook should be written for each district and school and be made available to all transfer students and their families. It should include academic calendars, names, and numbers of key school personnel, and set procedures for making new students feel comfortable and informed.

Second, schools should create a Student Transfer Committee, or STC, chaired by a guidance counselor or a senior teacher. The committee should include two students from each grade level—freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The STC could set the policies and meet with the transferees when they arrive and then track their progress in adjusting to the new school. A grade-level counselor could meet with transferees twice a month or so, to get to know their needs and help them adjust, reporting back to the STC.

Third, each transfer student should be assigned to a “welcoming group” of three or four students at his or her grade level, who share personal characteristics (such as gender, race, religion, and neighborhoods) and extracurricular and academic interests. So, if the transfer committee interviews a newcomer, and he or she is interested in playing the trumpet in the high school marching band, the committee could ask two or three students from the band to serve as members of the welcoming group and relate to the new student around their shared musical interests.

How can schools welcome, serve, and help transfer students adjust and find their way in their new school?

Fourth, on a monthly basis, all transfer students should meet individually with guidance personnel to discuss any problems or concerns. Are they being bullied, ignored, or isolated? Are they depressed or lonely? Do they have other issues for the guidance staff and transfer committee to consider?

Fifth, the school should plan special activities each semester to give identity and comfort to students who transferred in at different grade and age levels, with varying interests. For example, the new students might go bowling or ice skating, or attend baseball games or school concerts together. This effort would provide support and attention to new students and help them socialize and form friendships within the school.

These five steps, if implemented in schools, should systematically help transfer students adjust more readily to their new lives and potentially avoid a tragedy like the one in Omaha. Robert Butler Jr. shot two school leaders and killed himself apparently because of the stress he experienced adjusting to a new school. He likely felt alone—without friends to help his transition. Transfer students need to feel welcome in their new school environments—a critical task that requires administrators, teachers, and student leaders to work together.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as How to Help Transfer Students Adjust

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