Virginia Commonwealth University
May 10, 2010
Bookmark and Share

By Joan Lovegren-O’Brien, M.S.Ed

According to the 2007-08 Virginia Department of Education Special Education Performance Report , more than 2.4 percent of students with disabilities in grades 7 to 12 dropped out of school. How can we engage students with disabilities so they want to continue their education? How can we make the process more meaningful? Although we have included students in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) transition process, which includes writing postsecondary goals, developing good IEPs and supporting desired post-school outcomes, we have not emphasized the significance of transitioning in general. This article will discuss the importance of the transitioning process from middle school to high school.

Group of students sitting on bleachers.

Good transitioning services between middle and high school prevent students from dropping out or having low graduation rates, low achievement, increased disengagement and declining motivation.

Middle school involvement

The history of middle school development is a prominent part of the educational timeline related to successful transitioning to high school. Middle school, often referred to as junior high in the 19th and 20th centuries, offered a differentiated curriculum with both college and vocational preparation to address the needs of society (Repetto, Webb, Neubert, & Curran, 2006). The middle school focused on nurturing, while high school concentrated more on teaching students academic content (Cooper & Markoe-Hayes, 2005).

Research supports the need for good transitioning services between middle and high school in order to prevent students from dropping out or having low graduation rates, low achievement, increased disengagement and declining motivation (Herlihy, 2007). What can we do to prevent these negative occurrences? Cooper and Markoe-Hayes (2005) suggest allocating resources to support the 9th-grade transition, funding programs that create intentional opportunities for positive peer-network development and educating families about the importance of the 9th-grade transition. Let’s take it a step farther and examine a variety of transitioning activities that you can implement.

Transition activities

In developing a program that works within your budget and locality, you need an array of choices to improve and capitalize on what you are currently doing. Table 1 highlights more formal activities that can be done within your school division and Table 2 concentrates on less formal activities.

Table 1

The transitioning process: Inspiring engagement at the middle and high school

Transition activities, formal

Goal: To develop a middle and high school transitioning program that will decrease the drop-out rate of students with disabilities that includes a) understanding students’ uniqueness and interests; b) using responsive curriculum and instruction; and c) having intentional opportunities.

Activity Responsible person(s) When
  1. Separate physical setting in which the needs of the incoming freshman class can be met in a distraction-free, concentrated way – Success Academies (Herlihy, 2007)
Building administration, organizational facilitator/coaches and central office Systems change
  1. Small learning communities – A team leader would coordinate small groups of teachers and students in the 9th-grade year; schedules created so the teachers could have common planning time – Success Academies (Herlihy, 2007)
Teams of teachers School year
  1. Specialized “catch-up” curriculum – a specialized program for 9th-graders who failed or experience difficulty in the normal school setting. Provide students with additional assistance; typically used an extended block scheduling – Success Academies (Herlihy, 2007)
Teachers and building administrators School year
  1. Coach position and other supports to aid teachers’ professional development and efforts to improve instructional practice; that is curriculum-specific and focuses on modeling lessons, strategies for learning and classroom management (Herlihy, 2007)
Building administrators, central office and professional development team Ongoing
  1. Eight-week summer orientation program for all students who are at risk of not graduating; they are identified by the middle school administration (Frasier, 2007)
Building administrators and program chair Summer

Table 2

The transitioning process: inspiring engagement at the middle and high school

Transition activities, informal

To decrease the drop-out rate of students with disabilities by facilitating activities for students, teachers and parents.


Responsible person(s)


  1. Have a middle school student shadow a high school student (Mizelle, 1999)



  1. Middle school students can attend a presentation of a panel of high school students discussing what they need to do to be prepared for high school (Mizelle, 1999)

Teachers and high school students


  1. Orientation assembly for the students to hear what the expectations are for high school and to possibly get a tour of the facilities (Mizelle, 1999)

High school students and building administrators

Summer between 8th and 9th grade

  1. Discuss high school procedures and expectations with 8th-grade teachers or guidance counselors (Mizelle, 1999)

Building administrators and guidance department


  1. Collaborative scheduling and holding of 8th-grade spring semester IEP meetings at the high school (Frasier, 2007)

Teachers and IEP team members


  1. Developing bridging activities, such as joint projects between clubs at the different schools (Frasier, 2007)

Teachers and students

School year

  1. Collaborative scheduling of visits by regular high school academic special educators to middle schools (Frasier, 2007)


School year

  1. Social function for high school and middle school students (Frasier, 2007)

Students, teachers and building administrators


  1. Setting up a Web site that provides information, such as ask an expert (Mizelle, 1999)


School year

  1. Personal and group parent-and-student tours of high school campus during 8th-grade (Frasier, 2007)

Students, clubs and teachers


With change comes challenge; although many of these activities result in initial positive results, there can be significant funding barriers (Herlihy, 2007). To make these activities and programs successful, demanding changes must be made to aspects of school organization and instruction and teacher support must be developed and maintained. A selling point is that successful middle to high school transition programs can minimize other resources, such as staff time, by maximizing the existing framework in the IEP meeting.

The transitioning process from middle to high school is essential to the future of students with disabilities, as well as other students. As we reflect on the ability of change it is imperative that students remain engaged and focused to help decrease drop out and increase graduation rates. Middle to high school transition programs and activities are powerful tools that can empower and inspire students and teachers in the transitioning process.

Cooper, R., & Markoe-Hayes, S. (2005). Improving the educational possibilities of urban high school students as they transition from 8th to 9th grade. UCACCORD Public Policy Series: PB-013-0905. UC Berkeley: University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity. Retrieved from

Frasier, J. R. (2007). Transitioning students with disabilities from middle to high school. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 4(2) Article 2. Retrieved February 18, 2010 from

Herlihy, C. (2007). Toward ensuring a smooth transition into high school. National High School Center. Retrieved February 19, 2010 from

Mizelle, N. B. (1999). Helping middle school students make the transition into high school. Kid Source Online. Retrieved on February 19, 2010 from

Repetto, J. B., Webb, K. W., Neubert, D. A., & Curran, C. (2006). The middle school experience: Successful teaching and transition planning for diverse learners. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Virginia Department of Education Special Education Performance Report. Retrieved on March 11, 2010 from



booksT/TAC Library