The first year Daniel Rodriguez was in ninth grade, he failed English and science and was suspended "countless times," he said, for fighting with classmates.
The second year, he racked up an even longer string of failing grades and suspensions. A third attempt ended two months ago when he failed both health and physical education, in part because he rarely wore his gym uniform, he said.
"I was embarrassed of being around the younger kids again and again, so I just dropped out," said Rodriguez, now 16. "I didn't want to put up with it."
Rodriguez is one of thousands of students in the Washington area who have repeated ninth grade at least once -- and in some cases, as many as three times. In Prince George's County, where Rodriguez attended Bowie High School, nearly 22 percent of the 12,229 ninth-graders last school year were not promoted to 10th grade, according to district records. One national study found similarly high percentages in several states, including Florida and Texas.
Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby sees these ninth-grade repeaters as glaring reminders that far too many students are passed through middle school when they aren't ready for high school. "It's been the traditional response forever," Hornsby said of the practice, which has been labeled social promotion. "At one point in time in society, it was okay. . . . Children haven't been taught."
By the time they get to high school, many are reading at levels far below what is expected of a teenager, Hornsby and his teachers have found. "We're expecting ninth-graders, when they're really fifth-graders [or] sixth-graders," said Meghan Waldron, who teaches freshmen at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
But lack of preparation isn't the only cause, educators say. Some students do well in middle school, only to become overwhelmed by the size and complexity of today's high schools. Then there are those who simply don't want to go to class.
Whatever the reasons, researchers and school officials say ninth grade has become a watershed year. Although many students are held back in the first years of elementary and middle school, they say, the percentages are higher in ninth grade, and there is far less time for students to catch up.
"If you can get them successfully through the ninth grade and get them off to a good start, they tend to continue to fly from there," said Mary Gable, director of high schools for Anne Arundel County. "But when they struggle early on, then that's the difficult part."
Studies show that the students who repeat ninth grade, especially multiple times, often are the ones who display behavioral problems, have poor attendance and, most important, fail to graduate.
"If children are held back in a grade more than once, it's a virtual certainty that they're going to drop out of school before graduation," said Walter Haney, a professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
Haney and his colleagues recently found that the rate at which U.S. students fail to advance to 10th grade has tripled in the last 30 years. Nationally, 11.4 percent of ninth-graders in the 1998-99 school year did not show up as 1oth-graders the next year, according to the Boston College study.
Some of those students may have dropped out, transferred to private schools or been home schooled, but the researchers found that most had to repeat ninth grade.
This creates a bottleneck that is evident in the Washington area. For example, Arlington held back 14.4 percent of its ninth-graders in 2003, school records show, while in Loudoun County, 7.5 percent of last year's 2,771 ninth-graders had to repeat this year. D.C. school officials said 5.3 percent of their ninth-graders this year are repeaters.
Throughout the region, school officials caution that the numbers can be misleading because some of the students failed a required course and made it up in summer school, allowing them to get back on track.
Still, at a time when the federal No Child Left Behind law has required greater accountability for student performance, school districts are doing more to help ninth-graders get past the hump, including establishing specialized freshmen academies at some schools.
Loudoun's high schools have teachers who work exclusively with ninth-graders. Anne Arundel County has mentors for freshmen, as well as a "Twilight School" for students to make up a failed course after school. Montgomery County plans to offer ninth-graders a course on becoming more organized.
Hornsby, who took over the Prince George's school system nearly a year ago, speaks often of the ninth-grade problem, promising parents and public officials that he will try to reverse the trend. Schools in Prince George's are targeting first-time repeaters with various efforts. At High Point High School in Beltsville, first-time ninth-grade repeaters were assigned mentors who will stay with them throughout high school. The mentors, who are teachers or administrators, meet with the students on a regular basis, making sure they turn in homework and pass exams.
At Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, administrators found that many of the repeaters had failed English, which students must pass before they become 10th-graders. This year, the school started offering English classes two days a week after school for about three hours. Once the repeaters finish the after-school course, they will go to summer school. If they pass the course, they will be able to advance, unless they have failed other classes.
That will give students such as Rhonda Findley a chance to feel like a normal high school student again.
"I'm embarrassed that my ID says [Class of] 2007 when it should say 2006," said Findley, 16, who is repeating ninth grade this year. "I'm supposed to be in the 10th grade now. I'm not a ninth-grader."
For students who have repeated ninth grade more than once, Hornsby last month started a program that pulls them out of their regular high schools so they can take classes in preparation for the GED high school equivalency exam. So far, 56 students have enrolled.
They are students such as Tyrone Yancey Jr., an 18-year-old who has spent his first three years in high school in the ninth grade.
Yancey had repeated seventh grade three times. So when he arrived at Forestville Military Academy, the school district's public military high school, he was older than his classmates. He was immediately bored, he said, and "barely went to class." During one of his years as a ninth-grader, he was late 42 times and absent 26.
By his third year as a freshman, he realized he had many more years of high school ahead of him. "I would have been 21, 22 graduating," he said.
The final blow was when his 16-year-old brother became a sophomore.
"Right after that, it started becoming clear to me that I need to buckle down, go to class. My father told me that," he said.
On a recent day, he found himself sitting in a classroom at the Bladensburg Instructional Services Center, occasionally rubbing his thick glasses as he struggled to figure out how to divide 7,308 by 5. He raised his hand.
"Do you put 5 into 7 first or 5 into 73?" he asked his teacher at the center, which is run by the Prince George's school system.
In a nearby room, also studying math, Rodriguez jotted notes. He said his academic problems began even before he got to high school. He failed classes in the sixth and seventh grades but was allowed to pass to the next grade anyway, he said.
At Bowie High School, he immediately felt like an outcast. Although he was born in the United States, his parents are from Colombia and Guatemala. He is fluent in English and Spanish but speaks mostly Spanish at home. Rodriguez makes no secret of his heritage. On a recent day, he wore a bracelet in the colors of the Colombian flag and an image of Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara on a charm dangling from his necklace.
His classmates made fun of his accent and his attire, he said, and teasing escalated into punching. Pretty soon, Rodriguez lost count of how many times he had been suspended from ninth grade. He had few friends, and he was failing all of his classes. "Then I just lost interest after a while," he said.
So he stopped going to school and worked at a clothing store instead. His mother, Blanca Rodriguez, tried to coax him back to school by offering rewards -- a used car and a cell phone -- when nothing else seemed to work. "I tell him my dream is to see him at graduation," said Blanca Rodriguez, who worked as an accountant in her native Guatemala but has found work only as a housekeeper in the United States.
She finally persuaded her son that he could not become a movie director or screenwriter like his idol, Quentin Tarantino, without a high school diploma. But there was one more factor that weighed into his decision to go back to school: He didn't want his two younger sisters to have a high school dropout for a big brother, he said.
If he continues to go to class, Daniel Rodriguez will have a GED diploma this year. "I'm really relieved that I actually now have a future," he said.