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Montgomery County, Md., Ninth-Graders Embark on the Journey That Is High School

Jesse Flores gives his daughter Layla, 5, a big good-bye kiss as she starts her first day of kindergarten class at Stonegate Elementary in Silver Spring.
Jesse Flores gives his daughter Layla, 5, a big good-bye kiss as she starts her first day of kindergarten class at Stonegate Elementary in Silver Spring. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Nelson Hernandez and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One of the first things any newly minted ninth-grader has to decide is where to sit for lunch.

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As students returned to school Monday in Montgomery County, about 460 freshmen at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring were given an extra five minutes to make the critical choice of where they would fit into the high school firmament.

How would they handle what an assistant principal called the "chaotic ballet" of the cafeteria? Sit with friends from middle school? With kids they had just met? Alone? Wander in circles until invited to sit down?

Amid the din of older students catching up on a summer's worth of chatter, many of the freshmen were hesitant, standing near chairs but afraid to take a seat. Some craned their necks, looking for familiar faces. Others begged new acquaintances to sit with them. One boy sat at a table claimed by upperclassmen, who settled in around him.

Ninth grade is one of the crucial education battlegrounds: Of the nearly 30 percent of U.S. high school students who fail to graduate, a third do not progress past ninth grade, according to Diploma Counts 2009, a study published by the Education Week trade newspaper.

Montgomery has bucked the trend and is tied for the top among the country's 50 largest school systems, with fewer than 20 percent of students dropping out. But Blake Principal Carole C. Goodman still views freshman year as a delicate phase in a student's life. The days of automatic promotion are over, and students must take responsibility for their lives.

With the school year getting underway -- 190,000 students from Montgomery and Howard counties returned to class Monday; Prince George's and D.C. public schools started last week; and Northern Virginia schools reopen Sept. 8 -- there is renewed focus at Blake and many other high schools on supporting freshmen.

"What we discovered years ago with ninth-graders is they needed more pairs of eyes looking at them," Goodman said. "They're wide-eyed in many ways. They're naive in many ways, but they don't realize they're naive."

Goodman and other principals across the country have organized freshman academies, one way of easing the transition into ninth grade. Blake's began over the summer, when students can sign up for a week-long "High School 101" course for $65. About 200 students participated.

During the school year, the freshman class is divided into four teams, overseen by some of the school's most energetic and friendly teachers, who monitor student grades and moods, call home when there are problems and match up kids who need friends. These teachers have the same group of students in class all year. It's a time when students adopt various personas as they try to find a place in the school's social hierarchy. Some had already considered the image they wanted to project.

"At the middle school, they said you can't act the way you do or you'd get bullied," said Edwin Garcia, 14. "I'm going to go for the strong, silent type. They can't bully me if they think I'm strong." But he noted that he was revising his thinking because students at the school were nicer than he'd expected.

"I've come to love freshmen," said Monica Saxton, a ninth-grade English teacher on one of the teams. "They're still kind of straddling the line of middle school and being a big, important upperclassman. They're really very needy, but they don't want you to know they are needy."


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