Fixing the Freshman Factor

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The ninth-grader slouched in the chair one fall day, avoiding the principal's glare. He had the body of a boy, but he was deciding right there what kind of man he would be.

At the start of the school year, this child's education was flying off the rails. Mark E. Fossett, principal of Suitland High School in Prince George's County, called up the boy's attendance record on a computer and rattled off a lengthy list of days missed and classes cut. Unless something changed, he would fail ninth grade.

As schools push to raise graduation rates, many educators are homing in on ninth grade as a moment of high academic risk. Call it the freshman factor.

Last week, Maryland reported that one of every six seniors statewide is at risk of not receiving a diploma in spring because they have not reached minimum scores on four basic tests in algebra, biology, government and English. At Suitland High and countywide in Prince George's, more than a third of seniors are in jeopardy. But for many of those students, troubles began in their freshmen year. That's often when the state algebra test is taken.

In August, Prince George's schools quietly released an unusually detailed report that showed freshmen aren't just having trouble with tests of basic knowledge. It found that one in four freshmen -- about 3,000 -- flunked ninth grade last school year. Of almost 1,600 students trying a second or third time, more than half flunked.

High schools nationwide face a major challenge in acclimating ninth-graders to new academic demands. Suitland High is addressing the problem in several ways. Freshmen spend most of their time in a separate building, take an advisory class that provides a forum for discussing problems and attend special programs to catch up with reading and math skills they didn't master in middle school.

But the reality is that progress happens one student at a time.

Speaking forcefully, Fossett tried to steer the boy back on track. "You have seven E's and one D on your progress report," he said. "This behavior -- you are going to fail if you don't change it." The easy days of middle school were over, he explained: If the boy wanted to advance, he had to pass his classes.

"I know your face a month into school," he concluded. "What does that say?"

"That I'm not doing the right thing," the boy mumbled.

"Absolutely! Absolutely," Fossett said. He hectored the boy a little more. The boy slumped back into his chair.

"You don't want to be in a position where you are going to fail. Your year is still salvageable, but you're going to have to change now." He let the boy go to class.

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