Ninth Grade

Crucial Year Can Be Precipice or Springboard

Math teacher Shirley Strong works with students at the Minnie Howard School, one of about 160 schools in the country that has only ninth-graders.
Math teacher Shirley Strong works with students at the Minnie Howard School, one of about 160 schools in the country that has only ninth-graders. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

One in an occasional series looking at learning in the middle and high school years.

By 2001, Margee Walsh had dealt with every variety of that anxious species known as the ninth-grader. So when she met Ishmael Salandy, who had gotten into some minor trouble at school, she thought she knew right away what he needed.

Salandy lived in a low-income part of Alexandria. Only one parent was at home. But there was a spark in Salandy, a yearning for something better that Walsh could recognize in his tone of voice, his choice of friends, his promising grades. Walsh was principal of the Minnie Howard School, one of the few schools in the country that has only ninth-graders, and she had made it a rule that her students would all get very personal attention.

Much later, Salandy told Walsh he saw she had written these words on a form with his name on it: "Need to get him a mentor. He's a real leader."

"How did you know that?" Salandy asked Walsh, after he was elected president of his high school class. The answer, from Walsh and several other educators, is that they make it their business to know. Teachers are increasingly searching the records of each new ninth-grader before school begins and talking to their families and previous teachers. Because ninth grade, the beginning of high school in most cases, can save or ruin a young life.

"Ninth grade in America's public schools has become an increasingly severe hurdle to student progress," said Walter Haney, a Boston College education professor who has done much research on why more ninth-graders are being held back and eventually dropping out. [see below]

Alexandria created Minnie Howard for ninth-grade students in 1993 and made Walsh principal and Randolph Mitchell assistant principal. Both are tall, self-confident, athletic administrators who had worked in business. Like most of the 160 other ninth-grade schools that have popped up throughout the country, Minnie Howard's existence was the simple result of enrollment pressures. T.C. Williams High School had room for no more than three grades, so the ninth-graders had to go elsewhere. Walsh and Mitchell saw that as an opportunity.

In business, they knew, just standing up and making a pitch for your product, which is what many teachers essentially did, was not enough. You had to make the sale. You had to ensure that your students not only listened but learned.

That was particularly difficult with ninth-graders in the tight grip of puberty and liable to be too upset or distracted or withdrawn to be an attentive audience. High school was important. Their grades would count on their college applications, and if they were not going to college, their job prospects could often be determined by their choice of courses and extracurricular activities.

"One of the most important differences when we started the school was we wanted to change the way high school teachers viewed their accountability for the kids' progress," said Walsh, who was named executive director for secondary programs in Alexandria in 2002.

"It used to be typical. I was trained that way certainly, to come in, teach your subject, and if the kids learned it, they learned it. If they didn't, they didn't," Walsh said. "What we tried to do was to say: Every child matters to every adult."

That led to the creation of teacher advisory classes, groups of no more than 15 students that meet daily with a teacher or other professional at the school. "That teacher has an opportunity to find out what's going on with the kids in that group," Mitchell said. "If students need tutoring or if they need help in a particular area, that teacher can help them out."

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