(Editor’s note: This is the second of about a dozen student essays we’ll be publishing for Education Lab’s Student Voices program, which is partnering this year with Project Homeless. Know a student with a story to tell about homelessness or education? Email Education Lab's engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
High school is a second home. Its students constitute our second families, its lunchrooms our second dinner tables. But freshman year is that home’s decrepit walkway.
For me, that walkway was covered with cobwebs and dirt. I came to high school in limbo. My physical home was crumbling, and my first family was falling apart. The worst thing you can do to a boy mourning his old home is place him in a new one.
So when I got to high school, I lashed out. I skipped class as often as I attended; I made bad decisions and got in trouble for them. What I needed from my high school was patience and acceptance. What I got were grades. Bad ones.
My story is not unique. One study in the journal Education concluded that freshmen get worse grades, more absences and more misbehavior referrals than students in any other grade level. This research suggests that students do not begin high school ready to perform well, while those who stay eventually improve.
Freshmen often enter high school with no idea what they plan to do there, or no intention to be there at all. It is incumbent on the high school to show them the way. Freshman-year grades usually say more about a student’s mindset than their ability. With this in mind, I have an idea: more colleges should disregard freshman-year grades in the admissions process.
Stanford and the University of California system are perfect examples of appropriately evaluating prospective students. They do not count freshman grades at all in admissions decisions, and instead recalculate applicants’ grade-point averages without them. One admissions officer at UC Berkeley told me this method gives students room to grow and change priorities. In my case, this would have meant evaluating my ability rather than the shoddy goals I had entering high school. More colleges should follow these examples.
In my case, what changed was my priorities. When I entered high school, I wanted to be a musician and a drunk. Now that I am leaving it, I want to be a lawyer. My change in plans came about through the gradual prodding of supportive peers and teachers and lunch ladies. Like many others, my priorities and passions formed within school walls. Caring about law meant caring about school — and caring about grades. But by the time I cared, complacency had stained my transcript.
I got lucky. Acclimating to high school early as I banished my first fantasy of living as a drunk musician. Because my decrepit walkway turned out to be short, the sins on my transcript weren’t enough to hold me back: This fall I will attend Columbia University on a full ride. Columbia, by the way, does count freshman grades. If my first-year blues continued any longer, my path forward might be a little less bright.
And that’s why I care about this issue. I came close to losing an opportunity; unfortunately, some of my peers and friends who took longer to orient to high school are losing out in the long run. Freshman year is a tumultuous time. Judging students on their priorities then is like judging marathon runners on their walk to the starting line. One’s priorities then say little about their ability to thrive in an academic environment. First, let them thrive. Then judge away.