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Crucial Year Can Be Precipice or Springboard
Educators Find Extra Attention Paid to Students at Tumultuous Time Reaps Rewards Later

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."

Walsh and Mitchell took the goal-setting methods of businesses and introduced them at Minnie Howard. "The kids write an individual achievement plan," Walsh said. "They set goals at the beginning of the school year based on conversations with the teacher and based not only on what they would like to accomplish in high school but what was difficult for them in seventh and eighth grade."

This makes sense to parents and students who have found one of the most confusing parts of ninth grade is figuring out the potential senior-year consequences of decisions made as freshmen. Kenton Pattie, health, parenting and safety chairman for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, said ninth-grade educators should start the year discussing "the students' future so the whole four years will be meaningfully directed by goals, aspirations and a vision of what it is all going to lead to."

His son, Marshall Pattie, a graduate of W.T. Woodson High School, endorsed that idea but recommended against the usual adult instinct to say everything is going to be great. "Letting a ninth-grader know that for some high school is a terrific experience, while for others it is depressing would certainly help with the adjustment," he said.

Mary Boehm, whose daughter Emily attended ninth grade at the small, private Francis Parker School in San Diego, said she had to watch carefully for signs of stress. Emily had rowing practice every day from 4 to 6:30 p.m., and she often raced on weekends. When Boehm found her daughter one day deep asleep in the library, her head on her books, Boehm hatched a new plan: On the Monday after a racing weekend, "it might be good occasionally to call in sick and let her sleep in," Boehm said.

Julie Phillips Torney, whose son, Max, is a sophomore at Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County, said he was three months into ninth grade before she and her husband realized he was not using his locker because he was reluctant to be late to class. "He hauled around gym bags, tons of books, his lunch, et cetera, all day," she said. Eventually, he took her advice and asked for a locker in a better location.

At Minnie Howard, with many of the students' parents struggling to make a living and not always able to keep an eye on their children, teachers also have to provide personal guidance, particularly when the desire to be with friends interferes with schoolwork.

"I talk to them about what's cool now and what cool is going to be four or five years from now," said Mitchell, now Minnie Howard's principal. "Is it going to be cool to be standing on the corner wondering what you are going to do with your life?"

Ninth-grade educators say if they repeat such advice often enough, with successful examples, students hear them. And sometimes that's half the battle, Walsh said, since students such as Salandy "are stunned that we are paying attention to them."

The Schools & Learning page will return Jan. 10.

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