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Harrisburg set to open stand-alone Freshmen Academy
Building will eventually transition to become second high school as enrollment climbs
Ask most upperclassmen at Harrisburg High School (HHS), and they will tell you their freshman year took some adjusting. There’s the maturity level – the whole idea of 14-year-olds being thrust into the same place as 18-year-olds – and there is the academic level. School is harder.
For the district, ninth grade can’t be a “practice” year for grades.
It’s the rationale behind the Harrisburg School District (HSD) moving forward with a Freshmen Academy and its unique learning pathway.
Job one – student success
Ninth grade is hard but critical to success says Michael Amolins, director of instruction.
“Ninth grade can be a make-or-break year for some,” he said. “It is a time of transition, and the stakes increase. There is now a transcript, and grades travel with you. Because of this, it is critical to get off to a good start.”
Statistics also bear out the difficulty of the freshman year. Nationally, numbers show that ninth-grade year has a 22 percent failure rate, meaning many fall off track when it comes to graduation.
“Successfully completing ninth grade has shown to be an indicator for a successful high school career,” he added. “It’s why Harrisburg saw the need for a Freshman Academy.”
The Freshmen Academy emphasizes time management, study skills and how to prepare for big projects as well as learning how to study, how to plan and how to ask important questions.
“For HSD, the biggest motivation for a Freshmen Academy is that academic programming within that setting does make a difference because it is so intentional. Yes, we are building this physical facility, but it’s not about the brick and mortar. We want it to be about teaching kids the skills they need and helping them build a concrete plan for their future,” Amolins said.
Launching the first Freshmen Academy
The initial idea of a Freshmen Academy was brought to the public’s attention in 2017. Then Superintendent Jim Holbeck told KDLT News that not only would a Freshman Academy help 9th graders make a smoother transition into high school, but it would also help with the rapid growth of the district. He called it a “good temporary solution” to the district’s continued steady growth.
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In 2017 HHS had an enrollment of 1,001. The 118,865-squeare-foot Freshmen Academy addition to the high school opened in 2020 just in time to handle more students. It was a separate wing to the high school with its own entrance, academic area, administrative office, a designated faculty, a spacious library, a staffed cafeteria, a comfortable commons and a parking lot
But the academy at HHS wasn’t enough to handle the surge of new students and overcrowding. Enrollment had been growing about 150 new students per year for the past several years just at the high school. One year after opening its first Freshmen Academy, HSD realized another bond issue was necessary.
‘The right size at the right time’
Knowing it would be a pricy request, the school district put together an aggressive campaign with statistics and fact sheets spelling out exactly what was needed and why. Most, importantly, the mill levy would not have to be raised. (This has been the case in Harrisburg for 20 years). The campaign tagline became: The Right Size at the Right Time. June 1, 2021, voters went to the polls and approved the $60M bond issue for a third middle school and the construction of a second Freshman Academy.
Unique to this bond issue was that a full high school would not be built. The Freshmen Academy would be the first phase of a multi-phase project which would eventually become the second grades 9-12 high school when 9-12 enrollment reached 2,200 to 2,400 students.
Though approval for the two new schools was high – 83 percent – only 5 percent of the registered voters showed up.
District projections were accurate about growth. It was not a surprise to learn that the high school and Freshmen Academy would push enrollment to 1,660 total students at the conclusion of the 2023 school year. Class size disparity was more than apparent. Though HHS would graduate 331 seniors, 480 freshmen would be taking their spot. The new Freshman Academy was built just in time.
For the start of the 2023-2024 school year, the sophomores, juniors and seniors will be absorbing the space left behind in in HHS’s Freshmen Academy wing. It will be designated as the H Wing and will house the English Department, several science classes, CNA class and an art class.
“We will have 1,270 students in our 10-12 building,” said high school principal Ryan Rollinger. “It will be great to have more space for our students and for each teacher to have their own classroom. Having a separate building will provide some new challenges but will be worth the work.”
All the freshmen, 480 of them, will start their high school careers when the Harrisburg Freshmen Academy opens this August.
The $30 million facility located on 85th and Cliff Ave and built by Hoogendoorn Construction will test its ability to stand alone when it comes to services and support. Brad Seamer, who had been serving as the high school assistant principal for the Freshmen Academy, will continue in this role at the new location.
“We are planning for 480 freshmen to start the year,” said Seamer. “Each new group of freshmen provide our staff with unique challenges and rewards. We are excited to work with this group of young people.”
The completed Harrisburg Freshmen Academy is built on a spacious campus and is Phase I of the district’s master plan. The two-story school building is 151,483 square feet and includes food service, commons, auxiliary gym, administrative offices, library, technical support and academic classes. There are also outdoor areas which include an asphalt track for wellness/physical education classes. The track will become a track for competition once the facility become a 9 -12 high school.
Staffing the Freshmen Academy meant transferring teachers from the high school. Twenty-two teachers moved to the new building. “Five new teachers were hired, and there will also be some shared staff,” said Seamer.
For Seamer it is an exciting time and a grand experiment – it is the only Freshman Academy and standalone building in South Dakota.
“We are very excited to open this new building and provide an excellent learning environment for our freshmen. We hope this new facility and our excellent staff will provide a positive transition into high school for our students.”
No one could be anticipating the opening of the Harrisburg Freshman Academy more than Superintendent Tim Graf.
“The Freshmen Academy is a great opportunity to combine best instructional practices and a cost-effective way to transition to two high schools in the future,” he said.