Easing the Transition to a New School Parents, Counselors and Headmasters Talk About Relocating Students
Upon moving to a new city, transferring to a new school can be a major challenge for kids. But metro Atlanta private schools strive to make the transition easier on new families and students in new learning environments.
“At Springmont, room parents help welcome parents and children who are new; they set play dates and answer questions about school life, among other things,” says Jerri King, head of school. New students are also partnered with students in their classes to help make introductions and show them the processes, such as preparing for lunch or doing classroom chores. “Student hosts recognize the responsibility and engage fully in putting their charge at ease,” King adds.
In addition, Springmont teachers help build connections among the students, pointing out experiences or interests of the new student. “Teachers also teach grace and courtesies of making new friends and lead students to identify what it may feel like to be new and to not know anyone in a new school,” King says. “This often is a first step in students naturally embracing a new student in their own, meaningful way.”
Over the last three school years, Springmont has welcomed 21 new students who relocated to metro Atlanta.
Woodward Academy, another metro area independent school, will welcome 24 students from outside of Georgia during the 2016-17 school year; and students from six different countries, including Brazil, Japan, Norway, France, Thailand and China, will be starting new at the school this fall.
Tonya Dedeux, a Woodward Academy middle school counselor serving seventh and eighth-grade students, says the first thing that she and fellow counselors tackle with new students is the readjustment to the Atlanta area, including changes in weather, culture and possible language barriers. The second thing is making friends. “These students may not have a friendship network in their neighborhood or away from school yet, which can be more isolating,” she says. “Lastly, we work with new students to help them adjust to the curriculum and size of Woodward.”
New students also meet with the middle school’s administrative team prior to the first day of school during several scheduled and hosted events. For parents, they hold a new parent orientation meeting in the spring, as well as Parent’s Day in August, allowing parents to meet teachers and experience their child’s schedule, planned sessions with school counselors and several parent community events throughout the year. “We also have a group of middle school peer helpers that assist during orientation days that help new students get acclimated.”
To help your child acclimate to a new learning environment, Lori S. Davis, the senior high counseling chair at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, recommends sharing with your student that they are not alone in transitioning to a new school, and there may be outside-of-school opportunities to get to know their classmates and teachers ahead of time during the summer.
“Atlanta is a great and growing city, and there are always students who have made a change in their school of choice. The school year may not start until August, but summer opportunities abound to help students and families become more familiar and comfortable,” she says. “The wide variety of weekly summer camps at GAC is one of the best opportunities for kindergarten through junior high students to ease into the year. For senior high students, the first few days of school are an off-site retreat, designed to bring unity, community and focus to the year. Elementary and junior high begin the year with a variety of team-building fun activities. Each school year is a fresh start, and new students add tremendously to bringing positive growth.”
Purposeful Planning by Parents
As a parent moving children to a new area and a new school, the conversation can be quite tough, but it’s important, says Denise Marshall, that parents be purposeful in the planning on how and when they tell their children about the move.
Denise and her husband, Ken, moved from a suburb outside St. Louis to Atlanta in 2015, relocating their three boys to a new city and new school. Ken’s job with Equifax brought them to the area. Their children, Jonathan (11th grade), Matthew (eighth grade) and Samuel (third grade) all attend Whitefield Academy in Smyrna.
“During the couple of weeks that we waited, we talked to several mentors, friends and family members whose wisdom helped us feel more settled with our decision, allowing us to feel more ready ourselves,” Denise Marshall says. “We preliminarily researched schools so that we could talk to the boys about moving to a similar school setting — not something new and unfamiliar.”
Marshall goes on to say that they chose a weekend when they were all together at the house for a whole day, giving the children time to talk (or cry) without interruption of regular life. “When the time finally came, we were very honest with them about our feelings and also about the idea that we were in this together, as a family,” she continues. “We asked them individually what each one thought about our new future and they were very honest and engaged with us. We all cried, as it was a very difficult and sad announcement.
“It was very important to us that they knew that we were also sad and that we were affected by the move as well. We didn’t want to dismiss their sadness or sacrifice and felt by expressing our emotions, they would feel welcome to feel what they felt. Along with the sadness, we emphasized to them that this was a good thing for our family and that we would do our best to allow for as seamless as possible experience for them.”
The couple was pleasantly surprised with how quickly their sons were able to acclimate to the new surroundings, and Marshall says the transition to Atlanta has been seamless, mostly due to the open and welcoming arms of the Whitefield community. “Each one of the boys went to their first day of school having already met bunches of kids in their grade — either by way of a new student fun fellowship or grade-wide service projects, or both,” Marshall says. “Even though they were still nervous, they were comforted by having familiar faces to reach out to.”
“Of all the things that surprised us the most during our move, the opportunities that a small school such as Whitefield has to offer has been the most pleasant,” Marshall adds. “We are all doing things in Atlanta that were either unavailable to us in St. Louis, or were just too scary to try. While moving to Atlanta has been one of the hardest things our family has done, we are coming out on the other end stronger and with invaluable experience.”
Fitting Your Family’s Needs
Jim and Shannon Van Kirk, who moved to Atlanta from Farmington Hills, Michigan, for a job in 2014, have also been pleased with the ease of the transition at the school they chose for their children, North Cobb Christian School in Kennesaw.
“The school transition was the best part of the experience by far,” says Shannon Van Kirk says. Three of their four children attend North Cobb Christian: Rebecca, who is in sixth grade, and Jonathon and Kyiah, second-graders. “Finding a school that fit our entire family’s needs was a top priority and our prayer. The time we invested in this decision paid off. We planned things very carefully around our kids and their school and they transitioned better than we expected.”
After extensively researching schools across the metro Atlanta area, they narrowed their choices to three schools in Cobb County, then opted to build a home in a neighborhood that would be convenient to any of those three schools. “For our spring break in 2014, we returned to the area and toured each of the three schools as a family,” Shannon Van Kirk says. We also spent time at our new neighborhood so the kids could see other children their ages and even met some at the community park and pool.”
The news of their relocation, Jim Van Kirk says, was completely unexpected. “We were very happy at our school and where we lived in Michigan, close to family and many friends, plus we were active members of an awesome church,” he says. “We had relocated before, but this time we had a fourth child and our oldest was entering middle school, so it was a more complicated and stressful event.”
The couple had a full year to prepare for the move and told their children as soon as they learned about it. After the initial shock wore off, they began discussing the positive aspects of the move and made a family summer pilgrimage in 2013 to Atlanta to get the kids excited about the relocation. “Our itinerary included Six Flags, Legoland, the Georgia Aquarium and, of course, Chick-fil-A, a favorite of ours from our time living in Texas,” Shannon Van Kirk says. “As parents, we worked really hard to stay focused on the positives and to eliminate as many fears and unknowns along the journey.”
To sum it all up for the Van Kirk family, fast forward one year when they returned to Michigan on vacation and visited their former school, Jim Van Kirk says someone asked their middle school daughter if she wished she could return there. “‘No way,’ she said, ‘I like NCCS so much better.’ Mission accomplished!”
Tips To Help With A Transition from the Marshall and Van Kirk families:
- Honesty is a big key to success. Don’t hide sadness or uncertainty from your children. This may help a child process their feelings.
- Jump into all the new activities at school, encouraging your children to try new or similar things they did in their previous city.
- Attend as many parent meetings or socials as you can, and volunteer as much as possible. This helps integrate your family into a new environment.
- Include children in on decisions that matter to them, recognizing that each child may care about different things.
- Do your homework — researching schools and neighborhoods as far in advance as possible.
- Allow a child to personalize their bedroom, using custom paint treatments. It gives a child ownership of a new space in a new environment.
- During preliminary visits, rent the same kind of car you have at home. It gives children a sense of comfort and familiarity.
- Host a party for the kids and their friends before the move, but also give each guest a blank notecard and self-addressed, stamped envelope and encourage them to send your child a note.