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The 9th Grade

November 4, 2013

I remember my first year of high school.  I remember my primary goal that first year was to make it from September to June without messing up too badly.  It was more a matter of survival than anything else.  The first few months were spent trying to navigate the many new social and academic challenges.  I could not get over how much older and (seemingly) more mature the other kids were.  I remember feeling like I was on an island within the school- Freshman Island.  I remember this experience, and it rings especially true in my current role as a high school principal.  Current ninth graders are not much different than I was at their age- anxious, defensive, fearful.  In speaking to other veteran educators, it is almost universally agreed upon that students rarely establish their true identity during their freshman year.  Rather, it is in their sophomore year when students truly establish their place within the school environment.  While this is not true in all cases, it is the norm in a general sense, and it begs the question: is this detachment a given for 9th grade students?  Or, can something be done to improve the transition between middle school and high school?

Our school data mirrors the national trends for ninth grade students, in that our freshman are more likely to fail courses, attend summer school and be retained than any other grade level.  This is true by a wide margin and it has persisted for several years.  Attempts have been made over the years, with some success.  The questions most commonly asked are: 1) how can we better prepare students to adapt to the changing academic and social cultures of high school?  How can high schools and middle schools work collaboratively to ensure continuity between grade 8 and grade 9?  3) How can we establish and maintain a culture of acceptance among our student body to ensure that new students are supported and cared for?

The process has been slow, but there has been progress in some areas.  For one, we have become much better at using data to identify at-risk students and using progress monitoring and targeted intervention strategies to make improvements.  The RtI process, which was relatively recently established, has helped significantly in the ninth grade.  We have also created a ninth grade academy, a team of teachers who meet regularly to discuss common concerns, plan lessons and provide supportive interventions to struggling learners.  The academy setting has also given teachers time to meet and discuss solutions to common issues that they see among groups of students.  Finally, we have recently committed to a much more comprehensive and strategic transitional process for prospective students.  This process will include hosting events for grade 8 students and families to allow them to get to know our school better, and instituting a peer pals program where older students oversee a group of freshman and provide guidance and assistance when needed.  We still have much work to do, but the steps taken so far serve as a start to a conversation that will hopefully yield significantly improved results over the next few years.  With a continued focus in this area, I am confident that we will see a freshman class that is more confident, prepared and academically successful than ever.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

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