On a recent, sunny late August afternoon, more than one hundred nervous 9th graders (all working their hardest not to show it) found their way down to the Lecture Hall at the Cambridge Public LIbrary, and checked in for the first day of Bridge to CRLS. This new 9th grade orientation, hosted Aug 23-25th, came together through a collaboration between Cambridge Public Schools and Cambridge community partners, spearheaded by the Agenda for Children OST’s Middle School Network. Over the next three days, 260 incoming 9th graders traveled between the Library and CRLS for student-led tours, scavenger hunts, and workshops led by community partners and CPS staff, culminating in a Community BBQ on Thursday, August 25th, with a celebratory meal and send off for the 9th graders to their freshman year.
The story: transition meetings to wish lists to reality
The story of how this new orientation came to be started much earlier -- in December of 2021, at a joint meeting of three citywide networks of community partners (Elementary School & OST Network (ESON), the Middle School Network (MSN) and Reaching all Youth (RAY). This meeting focused on looking across the landscape at the transitions that were particularly difficult and important for families and young people in Cambridge. The 75 folks who were part of this “Transition Years'' meeting broke into groups - one considered the transition into Kindergarten, another group focused on the 5th-6th grade transition, another considered the 8-9th transition, and yet a fourth group looked at the “what comes next” transition beyond high school and after 12th grade.
All the groups met again in the spring, and came back with concrete takeaways for how each transition could be supported. The 8-9th grade transition group gained traction, and, more importantly, found something concrete that could be implemented to make a big difference in students’ and families lives. As part of an effort to map out what supports students have been receiving across 8-9th grade, we talked to community programs that work across the transition, 8th grade counselors/teachers from the upper schools, 9th grade counselors at CRLS as well as community members, all who have seen, “So many kids get lost,” once they enter high school.
Specifically, the two CRLS counselors who were most directly tasked with the transition of those (500 incoming) 9th graders, were asked, “What would help you support 9th graders?” Their wish list started with what was prefaced as “‘A pipe dream -- a longer orientation, like three whole days, to build real community.” Typically, 9th graders orientation consisted of two half days on the first days of school, most of which was usually taken up by important logistical/technical details, especially in the return to school from COVID. When proposed to the Networks of community partners in MSN and RAY, the concept of a “pre-orientation” became something concrete that folks could imagine creating, contributing to and helping to “send off” Cambridge's young people into high school. After a few months of advocacy on different levels, CPS agreed to support a range of in-person activities, workshops, tours and more in August. Key folks were on board, including leadership at CRLS, 9th grade counselor Emily Beaulieu, STARS and Peer Leadership teacher Sharon Lozada, and Nadia Davila, leader of the RAY network of high school aged programs serving youth in the community.
The vision comes to life: what was it like?
This August, the vision finally came to life - with a big community response from 9th graders, who quickly RSVPd to attend for this optional orientation happening in the last week of the summer. The Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program graciously agreed to pay any 9th graders who were already working for them that summer, and advertising there & through CPS channels got the word out about the chance to relieve some transition anxiety, meet some friends and get to see the CRLS building.
For the first two days, students rotated in small groups headed by Team Captains - trusty guides who were either CRLS 9th grade teachers or recent alums who had been part of MSYEP staff all summer. They were charged with helping to ease group awkwardness, meld the group together and get them where they needed to go across each day. Each group got at least one tour of the CRLS building, led by Peer Mentors and upperclassmen at CRLS - a big draw for nervous 8th graders who had never been in the massive building.
The other workshops students rotated through featured community partners and centered on the theme of Building & Sustaining Relationships - as well as the goal of sharing resources in the context of relationships and real scenarios, rather than via a list on a handout.
See below for our list of workshops led by community partners, upperclassmen at CRLS and CPS staff:
On Thursday, the third and final day, everyone returned for the Community BBQ, where students were welcomed by Damon Smith (Principal at CRLS), their Deans and a varied collection of community partners and community members who came to join in, help out and make connections with 9th graders. 9th graders also received their “Class of 2026” t-shirts, which were designed by CRLS alum and Community Arts Center alum Zora Williams, current student at Mass Art - she took the “Bridge to CRLS” theme and created a beautiful graphic to celebrate this incoming class. Once students got shirts, they had the option of visiting our “T-shirt customization” table where the creative and ever-energetic staff from the Mayor's Program showed examples of how to paint, cut, embroider and bedazzle shirts.
Also featured at the BBQ, was a collective art project created by the Community Arts Center Teen Program staff - a spread of black vinyl and paint markers that would later be cut into falcons (CRLS mascot) to grace the hallways of CRLS.
Our friends (and hosts) at the Cambridge Public Library brought out their ever-popular button maker and advertised their new makerspace (the HIVE), Cambridge Youth Programs teen staff signed up 9th graders for teen internships, and CRLS sports coaches came to represent the various sports available to new students. Given the summer heat, the longest lines were for sno-cones which RECESS director Kyrk Morris cranked out with the RECESS sno-cone machine. Chef Darryl Morris and his catering team prepped and grilled food for 300. Gigi and Jess from Margaret Fuller House, alongside a stellar upperclassman volunteer, manned the raffle table, where students could exchange ‘connection cards’ for raffle tickets for gift certificates, CRLS swag, and back to school items like sketchbooks, markers and journals.
What did the young people have to say about it?
As part of an exit ticket on the last day of the orientation, we asked students to tell us “What’s One Important Thing You Learned at this Orientation?” Their responses were real, encouraging, and a good reminder of the importance of concrete details in a big transition (like where the bathrooms are), in addition to mindsets that will help them problem solve as they face challenges later.
Here’s a sampling:
What’s one important thing you learned at this orientation?
"This is now a tradition"
“This is now a tradition,” said CRLS Principal Damon Smith, as we kicked off the first day. As a first-time experiment, Bridge to CRLS was successful in many ways: by giving students an opportunity to build community among themselves, by showing that an August pre-orientation was possible to pull off, by introducing young people to a full spread of community partners and programs they can join, and by previewing some of the challenges they might face through workshop content and real conversations about the transition. One 9th grade teacher involved commented that “this is something 9th graders have been needing for forever.” Another noted that, “Students are so receptive and ready for this now, versus the first days of school when they are already overwhelmed.” Our community partners, who spent the majority of time with young people over the orientation, said they enjoyed the opportunity to get to know students and give them a little taste of what their programs can offer, as well as the chance to contribute their very real expertise to a large community event at CRLS.
The effort was certainly worth it - and a team effort it was. Many thanks to all the folks who helped to make this pipe dream a reality, at the many stages of the process:
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.