Los Alamos Freshman Academy Eases Transition From Middle School

Topper Freshman Academy Principal Carter Payne in his office in the administration area, added at the front end of the building. Photo by Maire O’Neill/ladailypost.com
Topper Pride is spotted in the hallway at Topper Freshman Academy. Photo by Maire O’Neill/ladailypost.com

By MAIRE O’Neill
Los Alamos Daily Post

Transitioning from eighth to ninth grade can be a very difficult time in a young person’s life. School districts throughout the nation are looking to autonomous programs called freshman academies within their high schools to help with the emotional, physical, social, and academic challenges facing freshmen.

Los Alamos High School moved toward this model in 2011 when teachers of freshman core classes were moved into “E Wing” together to give common planning time.

This school year saw a giant step forward with the establishment of the Topper Freshman Academy with J. Carter Payne as principal. Michelle Harrison is the freshman guidance counselor, and Colleen Swavely is the TFA secretary.

Still housed in E Wing, TFA has seen some major changes. It has its own entryway, additional parking for visitors, its own counselor, secretary, additional math and special education teachers, even a new address and phone number.

Classrooms have been revamped with old carpeting torn up and fresh paint where needed for a fresh new appearance. School of Choice has been separated from the freshman area by glass doors.

TFA has its own AdvancED certification and is accredited as a separate school on New Mexico Public Education Department books; however, Payne said it is still very closely integrated with the high school. The 310-member freshman class still attends electives and extracurricular activities with the 826 high school upper classmen.

While a true measure of the freshman academy will not be available until the end of the school year, Payne is excited about what has already been accomplished. One result of the increased academic and social support is an improvement in attendance numbers among freshmen.

Payne said he particularly enjoys the increased contact with students and teachers.

“I love the proximity of my office to the classrooms,” he said. “I like being present in the hallways and being able to go into classroom more often.”

Payne said a concentrated effort has been made to keep class sizes as small as possible. He said TFA is investigating curriculum that would address psychosocial, emotional, time management and study skills for students.

Under the One to One Initiative, Payne said each student has been assigned a Chrome Book computer to use at school.

A native of Farmington, Payne joined the Los Alamos High School staff in 2010 as a physics teacher and became assistant principal in 2012. Prior to relocating to Los Alamos, he was an assistant principal at Onate High School in Las Cruces.