Across the K-12 spectrum, student vulnerability manifests itself in myriad ways. Some troubled kids act out; others drop out. Some do both. But one student is particularly at risk: the ninth-grade boy. High school's naive newbie, he often traverses a road riddled with academic and behavioral potholes.
According to newly-released data from North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction, fully 30 percent of dropouts in 2010-11 were ninth graders; 60 percent of all dropouts were boys. DPI's crime and violence numbers tell a similar tale of woe: "Reportable acts were most frequently committed by students who were ninth graders and male." Not surprisingly, ninth graders received "far more" short- and long-term suspensions than any other grade; boys were two to four times more likely to be suspended than girls.
Widely known as the "dropout year," ninth grade represents -- for too many unruly, disengaged boys -- the point of no return. What is going on during this critical stage of schooling? Why do age and gender coalesce so powerfully into a perilous kind of double jeopardy?
Johns Hopkins University research scientist Ruth Curran Neild, writing in The Future of Children, indicates that ninth grade failure is best explained by two factors.
First, freshmen arrive on campus unprepared for the academic rigors of high school. Then, high school organization -- with its fragmented school day and constantly shifting parade of teachers -- "can leave students feeling anonymous and alienated."
Author and boy expert Richard Whitmire agrees that poor preparation sets boys up for failure. In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Whitmire wrote, "Incoming ninth-grade boys unprepared for the college-track rigors of high school get slammed and held back for a repeat 'experience.'" Many would-be repeaters simply give up and head home.
How can we stanch the flow of ninth grade dropouts? I've extolled the benefits of ninth grade academies before. Such academies offer students the opportunity to learn in a smaller, nurturing "school within a school" context, or even on a separate campus. Dropout data show these academies are making a difference.
Parental support also is essential. Many parents disengage in high school, reasoning that freshman boys are mature enough to guide themselves academically. They're not. That big boy body still houses an impulsive and inexperienced mind. Additionally, parents need to ensure boys cross that school threshold every day; poor attendance is the most frequently-cited reason for dropping out.
Finally, we need to reach back -- far back -- into the years preceding high school. Ninth grade dropouts often send red alerts for years before dropping out. In fact, Neild's colleague, Robert Balfanz, has found that future dropouts can be identified as early as sixth grade. Students at greatest risk demonstrate behavioral or attendance problems, or fail English or math.
In Durham, Duke University research scientist Ann Brewster is using Balfanz's dropout predictor tools to identify at-risk sixth graders at three low-performing middle schools. Students will be followed over time; at one school, Brewster is working on pilot interventions for kids who are on a possible dropout trajectory.
Effective dropout prevention, Brewster told me, has "a lot of components": data and interventions matter, but so, too, do partnering with schools and "taking inventory of what works and what doesn't." Ultimately, Brewster said, "It's important to have a greater vision for how all of these pieces fit well together."
Can we cast such a vision? Clearly, some of our finest minds are doing just that. And that's great news for all the boys whose futures just might depend on it.
Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow.