The transition from elementary school to high school can be traumatic. Adolescents are leaving their comfort zone for a whole new world. Fears abound — of being anonymous, dealing with an unfamiliar environment and just finding their way and where they belong. In short, it can be one of the most stressful times in a young person’s life.
But it doesn’t have to be. And Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills has worked hard to make sure it isn’t.
Kayla David, 14, a freshman from Granada Hills, admits she was anxious at first.
“I was really nervous and scared because I thought high school was going to be like you see in the movies,” she says. “You know, people are rude and they don’t help you. And they put you down. But my older sister, Katarina, who graduated from here last year, was like, ‘No, it’s really easy to make new friends at Alemany.’ And, yeah, it really has been. Now it’s like my second home.”
Devin Martinez, 14, also has a sister who graduated from Alemany last year. She told him all about the school and, especially, how great the teachers were.
“It’s been a good transition, too, because I came to summer school for biology as a freshman,” he points out. “So I think it was good for me to see all the campus and not be worried the first day. And then my sister, Alyssa, really filled me in.”
Kayla went to summer school for geometry. “It was really hard,” she admits. “But the teachers here are really clear, so you can understand what they’re teaching. And I was so confused when I came here because I didn’t know where all the classes were. But the seniors helped me to find my classes. They talked to me, asked me where I was from and were really welcoming. They told me not to be scared because everyone here is, like, welcoming. That was nice.”
Devin is nodding: “The teachers here are wonderful for me. My favorite is probably, actually, my chemistry teacher. She really pushes us to know the material. She wants us to learn, but learn independently, but still with her help. And I think she teaches more than just chemistry. She actually teaches, you know, life lessons.
“And my religion teacher, he’s very open about his own story and about his background and his struggles,” he adds. “He wants us to build our own faith with God.”
Now Kayla is nodding her head up and down. “I ask him a lot of questions about classwork and homework,” she says. “And like Devin said, he tells us a lot about his childhood and family and how he became religious. So I learn more about my own faith than just reading something straight out of the book.”
The hardest thing for Devin as a freshman has been taking honors chemistry. He says it’s a lot more work than any class he had at St. Didacus Elementary School in Sylmar, and tougher than his other five current classes: honors geometry, intro into engineering design, Spanish, English and religion.
For Kayla it’s the big jump in homework from her days at St. John Baptist de la Salle Elementary School in Granada Hills. While she can do some of it in class, she still studies until about 10 o’clock on regular nights and until midnight for tests. Devin puts in 3 1/2 hours on week nights and a few more for tests. Both did well in recent midterm exams, scoring in the 90s on their exams. And she aced her English test with 100, and he scored a 97 in geometry.
“The best thing is I’ve made new friends here,” she says. “It’s really easy to make friends from other schools. “And the upper classmen have been really nice. They talk to me.”
Kayla chuckles. “Being a freshman in the beginning was really hard. It’s a new adjustment. But being a freshman is a lot easier than I thought.”
Devin adds, “First, it’s all intimidating. But with the support that they give you, it’s a pretty easy adjustment.”
Principal Dave Chambers says that a welcoming environment for freshmen doesn’t just happen. It’s planned and programmed into Bishop Alemany’s very fiber. “Very, very quickly they’re part of the school,” he notes.
The veteran educator says it really is a huge adjustment going from a small parochial school to his high school with 1,350 students spread out over 60 acres. But the size and diversity of the students offers something special.
“The wonderful thing about a high school this big is that maybe in eighth grade you felt really close to one or two kids who were kind of like you,” he points out. “But here you find a whole new group of people who are exactly like you. So you end up hanging around with maybe 10 or 15 students.”
And then there’s Bishop Alemany’s great diversity of students: about 25 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 10 percent black and the rest mostly Filipino and international students. The principal reports how they all hang out together. There are no racial of ethnic cliques. So this is a big welcoming factor for new students, too.
Finally, Chambers talks about a Christian leadership group on campus that actually goes around looking for lonely freshmen. “They make sure everybody has somebody,” he says. “So nobody comes here and just is friendless. It just doesn’t happen.”