Focus on 9th graders hopes to reduce dropouts

SAN ANTONIO, TX Ninth grade, often the first year of high school, is a critical time for students, when many sink or swim in their budding high school careers.

Given the importance of ninth grade -- and the difficulties many adolescents face -- some educators are turning to ninth-grade-only schools to separate 14- and 15-year-olds from older kids and make the transition easier.

"People just really value having our ninth-graders have a chance to develop intellectually, emotionally and socially outside of the context of a large comprehensive high school setting," said Kenneth Graham, superintendent of Rush-Henrietta Central School District near Rochester, N.Y. "They don't have upperclassmen in the halls picking on them and teasing them."

In the 1999-2000 school year, there were 127 ninth-grade-only public schools. In the 2005-06 school year, that number had jumped to 185, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

In San Antonio, the Southside Independent School District is opening a ninth-grade school this month. Another district plans to open one next year.

"I think that most of us in the state have always been looking for ways of addressing the dropout issue and ... keeping our students engaged," said Juan Antonio Jasso, superintendent of Southside. "It didn't take a great deal of convincing that this was a most positive approach to take with the student population."

The ninth-grade year is crucial to success in high school. If students don't get the credits needed to move on to 10th grade, they can fall insurmountably behind. In Texas public schools in the 2005-06 school year, 16.5 percent of ninth-graders -- the highest rate of any grade -- didn't complete requirements to advance to 10th grade, according to a Texas Education Agency report.

Ninth grade is also when most problems start to appear, said James Kemple of MDRC, a New York-based social policy research organization.

"It's the point where you can very clearly predict who's eventually going to drop out," said Kemple, director of the group's K-12 education policy area.

There are more ninth-graders in U.S. high schools than any other class. That's because many students either aren't promoted to 10th grade or drop out before they get there.

In 2003-04, there were nearly 4.2 million ninth-graders nationwide. But by the next year, just 3.75 million were in the 10th grade, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National High School Center.

Ninth-grade-only schools make some sense, said Joseph Harris, director of the center. But simply moving students to another campus, building or wing isn't enough.

"It isn't replicating the practices of a large comprehensive high school in a stand-alone ninth grade," Harris said. "The key there is making sure that you're facilitating the communication between teachers and administrators in ninth grade who are preparing students for eventual promotion."

Some districts, like Madison County Schools in Huntsville, Ala., and West Fargo Public Schools in North Dakota, began ninth-grade centers to relieve overcrowding in high schools. Rush-Henrietta started its ninth-grade school, with an enrollment of 500, for the same reason in 2000 and has kept it ever since.

"From all quarters it was a resounding success," Graham said. "We're delighted with it, it's worked out really well."

Aldine Independent School District in the Houston area has four ninth-grade centers with enrollments of about 900 each.

"The whole philosophy behind it was to separate the younger kids from the older kids. To give an opportunity to work with them one more year ... as opposed to cutting them loose in high school," said superintendent Wanda Bamberg.

Tasnim Mohamed graduated from Aldine's Eisenhower Ninth Grade School in the spring. She said it provided her the personal attention she wanted. But she also became familiar with Eisenhower Senior High School, where she'll start 10th grade this month, through extracurricular activities.

"You get a sense of knowing everybody that you're going to school with" in the ninth-grade school, she said. "But it's not like you're secluded from everybody else. You still get to interact and see how it will be next year (in high school) when you go there."

Still, educators acknowledge there are some drawbacks.

For many students, it means attending three schools in as many years as they progress from the eighth grade to high school.

"This is now another step in there in terms of kids transitioning from one school to the next and all that that implies," said Sandra Spivey, director of secondary education for Madison County Schools in Alabama.

West Fargo superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace wonders if exposure to older students is a part of the maturation process that ninth-graders don't get.

"They can be a little more silly without that older peer influence," she said, while also noting significant GPA improvements among students attending her district's Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center.

Kemple, the K-12 education policy researcher, said it's also important to not lose focus on older students.

"Giving special attention to ninth grade is the first order of business," Kemple said. "But then apply the same general principles to grades 10 through 12 so students aren't faced with the same problems, but just a year later."

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