D.C. to overhaul ninth grade, separating out students who failed


Ninth-graders Lloyd Rodgers, left, and Myja Darby, wait to present their roller coaster projects in their Concepts of Physical Science class at Dunbar High School in Washington on June 11. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
June 30, 2013

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson plans to overhaul the city’s approach to ninth-grade education, separating out students who have already failed the first year of high school from impressionable incoming freshmen.

School officials hope the move will insulate new ninth-graders from the influence of older classmates who have begun to disengage from school. They aim to nurture teens who are making the transition from middle to high school while also providing meaningful alternatives to students who are repeating ninth grade for the second or third time.

“Once you’re a third-time ninth-grader, the odds of you being able to succeed . . . the odds are low,” Henderson told the D.C. Council last week. “The same old, same old is not going to get these young people to where they need to be.”

Nine D.C. high schools will open in the fall with “ninth-grade academies,” small schools-within-a-school dedicated to providing extra support for first-time freshmen. Students who have already failed ninth grade will not be allowed to enroll in the academies.

Officials say they are still hammering out plans for those “repeater” students, raising concerns among some advocates that the school system doesn’t know how to effectively educate such students and is perhaps setting them up for additional failure.

Cathy Reilly, executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, said officials must craft a comprehensive strategy for changing the trajectory of its failing students.

“They are a huge contingent of who’s in the high schools, the kids who are failing,” Reilly said. “You don’t want those kids to feel that they’re not part of the school. You don’t want them to feel like castoffs.”

School system officials said that some repeaters could go to after-school “twilight academies” dedicated to helping students catch up to their peers, while others could enroll in evening credit-recovery programs while taking some classes during the day.

And many might be headed for alternative schools. Henderson says she will be more aggressive about removing overage, credit-short students from neighborhood schools and assigning them to programs, such as the city’s two STAY schools for adult learners, that can provide a different and perhaps more successful path to graduation.

Although a limited experiment at Dunbar High School appears to have done well for incoming freshmen, D.C. officials could not say how Dunbar repeaters did in that school’s alternative program.

The target

D.C. officials are targeting the ninth grade because that is when things tend to fall apart for many of the city’s traditional public school students, who are promoted through elementary and middle school despite lacking grade-level skills in math and reading.

In ninth grade, for the first time in their school careers, students must pass certain classes — Algebra and English — to advance. Among those who struggle, truancy spikes. And failure becomes common: Only about six in 10 first-time freshmen are promoted to the 10th grade, leaving classrooms clogged with students who have been retained multiple times.

The result is a history of freshman classes that bulge with challenged students. There were nearly 4,000 ninth-graders in the city’s traditional schools in fall 2012, compared with just 2,200 eighth-graders and fewer than 2,600 10th-graders.

School systems around the country, faced with a similar problem, have tried versions of ninth-grade academies with varying degrees of success. D.C. officials are adopting the academy model partly on the strength of results they have seen at Dunbar.

Principal Stephen Jackson started a ninth-grade academy at Dunbar two years ago when he mapped out a plan to improve the school, where fewer than a third of students are proficient in math and reading.

At 14 or 15 years old, many “true” ninth-graders are still kids who want to please their teachers, Jackson said. They want to do well in school. The academy model protects that attitude, he said.

“We want to make the transition right for them when they come into high school,” Jackson said. “If they travel as a cohort, they build camaraderie.”

With the help of a $300,000 grant from the school system, Dunbar has lengthened the school day by an hour and a half for freshmen — time used for teaching study skills and preparing for college admissions. And Jackson has ninth-grade teachers work closely with a counselor and social workers to offer students extra help if they struggle.

Dunbar’s promotion rate for first-time ninth-graders jumped from 47 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2012, according to school system officials. Jackson said he expects 90 percent of the 2012-13 freshmen to be promoted to 10th grade, and truancy and suspensions are down among those students.

Dunbar math teacher David Tansey said the academy seems to make a big difference for middle-of-the-road students who are swayed by those around them, and “who could just as easily push forward or slide backwards.”

“Those are the kids who often get lost in D.C.,” Tansey said. “When you have classmates who have checked out, checkout seems like a valid option.”

It’s less clear how the more challenging freshmen — those who have failed once or more — fare at Dunbar.

They are sent to the twilight academy, a four-hour afternoon program meant to help students catch up. If they complete enough credits, they are allowed to return to day school.

Dunbar officials— in the midst of moving office materials to a new school building — could not say how many of this year’s approximately 20 full-time and 80 part-time twilight students successfully caught up with their peers, nor how many dropped out or transferred.

Program expansion

Spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said the school system is investing about $2 million to expand the academies to the city’s eight other non-selective high schools: Anacostia, Ballou, Cardozo, Coolidge, Eastern, Roosevelt, Wilson and Woodson.

“I’m excited,” Cardozo Principal Tanya Roane said. “First-time ninth-graders will have an opportunity to really sit in a class amongst their peers and not be influenced by someone taking the course for a second time, who may not be as positive.”

Most of the money for the program comes from federal Title I funds for improving high-poverty schools, Salmanowitz said. It will pay for one additional full-time employee at each school, as well as for an optional longer school day, Saturday school sessions, and supplies to enhance extracurricular activities and field trips.

D.C. Council members embraced Henderson’s plan a week ago during a hearing on the school system’s efforts to reduce its high truancy rates. “I like your plan because it’s a plan,” said Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

Dunbar ninth-graders said they appreciate the academy structure. LaToya Cromwell, 15, spent most of her freshman year at Ballou Senior High, where she said she was in classes with 18- and 19-year-old repeaters. “Grown men and women,” she said.

“Some of the kids would slack off with the repeaters . . . skipping class and stuff,” said Cromwell, who transferred to Dunbar in the spring. “I learn more than I did at Ballou.”

Dunbar teachers say that while many first-time ninth-graders still have profound academic challenges, they are more willing to work.

On one of the last days of school in June, academy students showed up to science class with model roller coasters they had built and decorated at home with materials ranging from construction paper and cardboard to candies.

It was an assignment meant to reinforce concepts of circumference and potential vs. kinetic energy. It was also a demonstration of what has changed at Dunbar.

Positive signs

Two years ago, a teacher couldn’t have assigned such a project to a freshman class, said Semanthe Bright, Dunbar’s assistant principal, because the students wouldn’t have complied.

“They wouldn’t do it,” Bright said. “They wouldn’t come.”

But now the students showed off their projects, judging each on the quality of construction and presentation. Two boys — who teachers said had been close to giving up on high school earlier in the year — high-fived when they heard their scores.

Bright said that these boys and others like them have a better chance of graduating and going to college.

“This is a pivotal year,” Bright said. “This is the year that tells it all.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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