Navigating the Uncharted Territory of High School

By Sarah Birch, Education Specialist

There are hundreds of movies made about the high school experience—films outlining the social hierarchy, the discipline system and more. It is taken as a given in American culture that every individual went to high school, that it’s something we can all look back on and share. What I have found in my work at Treehouse is this is not always the case.

For some students, high school is uncharted territory where everything is new. These students were in isolated environments or homeschooled with little opportunity to engage with peers. For them, communication with teachers, establishing friendships and socializing with classmates are evolving skills. All of this is on top of demanding course loads and stringent graduation requirements.

On my caseload of more than a dozen students who have experienced foster care, most of them have previously been enrolled in school. Though I have the honor of learning from the fearless attitudes of three teenagers who are in public school for the first time—as sophomores and juniors. Each week we talk about their grades, attendance and behavior like I do with other students. But we also dive into topics like how to talk with friends, what the teacher meant when she said that she doesn’t accept late assignments and what to do about the cute boy in ceramics.

These students are brave because they are 10 years behind their peers in knowledge of public education, and yet they show up each day to take on the challenge. When their grades dip, we talk about study strategies, how to prioritize missing assignments and the importance of meeting with teachers outside of class time. When they are anxious about eating in the cafeteria with more than a hundred other students, we brainstorm favorite teachers they could eat with. The students that I work with are navigating and exploring high school—a place of ever-shifting friendships, strict course requirements and a lot of drama.

Every week during our conversations, I am humbled and inspired by their perspectives, the things that are most important to them and the way they balance all of these demands. We focus on wins. The little things that are going well. The successes that inspire them to keep going.

I advocate for them and teach them to advocate for themselves by sharing these wins with others on their team (social workers and caregivers) and reminding staff at school that these students face expectations and realities that surpass those of their peers.

As one student shared with me a few weeks ago, “climbing the social ladder” really is something to be proud of—especially when you just realized there was a social ladder to climb. I am excited that the students I work with will have stories to tell about their high school experiences as adults. Just like their peers, they will be able to watch the depictions of high school in movies and make parallels to their own lives.

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About the Author

Sarah Birch joined Treehouse in 2014 as an Educational Advocate in Northwest Washington. In 2016, she left to pursue her Master’s in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah is working as an Education Specialist in Sedro-Woolley and Bellingham. Prior to coming to Treehouse, Sarah worked with families experiencing homelessness and special education for infants and toddlers.

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