Opinion: Carolina Beat

Reversing Freshman Failure

It’s hard to overstate the importance of ninth grade to the eventual success of high school students. Much depends on whether freshmen — already buffeted by the tempest of early adolescence — can maneuver deftly through high school’s initial year.

Students who are unable to acclimate to the rigors of ninth grade generally find themselves on a downward academic trajectory, likely to act out or drop out.

This stark reality has caused educators and researchers to dub ninth grade the “make or break year,” making numbers released this spring from North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction a worrisome sign. For many students, the freshman year of high school has become an academic and behavioral quagmire: in 2007-08, ninth-graders — particularly male students — were more likely to receive short-term suspensions, face expulsion, commit acts of crime or violence, and drop out of school than students at any other point along the K-12 spectrum.

These are sobering findings.

Behavioral disturbances among high-school freshmen, as evidenced by disciplinary actions such as suspensions and expulsions, occur in ninth grade at disproportionately high rates. Last year, ninth-graders were suspended from school more than twice as often as 10th-graders, three times as often as 11th-graders, and five times as frequently as 12th-graders. Ninth-grade suspensions have risen steadily since 2004.

Freshman expulsions are also at their highest levels since 2004. Last year, ninth-graders were expelled at rates double those of 10th- or 11th-graders, and four times those of 12th-graders. Ninth-graders were also most likely to commit crimes or violent acts. How much likelier is hard to say, however, since DPI did not release crime numbers by individual grade level.

Overall, the state’s dropout rate decreased slightly, and this dip held for ninth-graders, providing a measure of good news. Yet ninth grade remains the year of greatest student attrition: last year, 32.6 percent of students who dropped out did so in grade nine, compared to 25.2 percent in grade 10, 23.3 percent in grade 11, and 14.8 percent in grade 12.

Concern for the plight of high-school freshmen nationwide has some educators recommending an influx of ninth-grade “academies.” These institutions target the ninth-grade transition, operating either as smaller learning environments within high schools, or as distinct entities on separate campuses. According to a 2008 DPI study, North Carolina currently has 134 ninth-grade academies in 63 counties; though new, these academies have made impressive progress, posting dropout rates roughly half the state average.

High schools in 15 states including North Carolina are also turning to reforms such as the Talent Development School. Conceptualized by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the Talent Development model offers faltering schools a disciplinary and academic tuneup.

According to the program’s Web site, the Talent Development model focuses on bolstering attendance and implementing schoolwide curricular and organizational changes, including a “school-within-a-school” learning community for ninth-graders. In
2006-07, North Carolina featured 28 Talent Development schools.

Such interventions are both timely and necessary. However, there’s an even more fundamental way to empower students and their parents: school choice. Educational choice — allowing families to select their child’s school — has been shown to boost academic achievement and parental involvement, key factors in curbing behavioral problems and keeping kids on track.

In fact, research demonstrates that school choice raises graduation rates — ultimately elevating the life prospects of would-be dropouts and, according to Friedman Foundation calculations, potentially saving states millions of dollars in annual dropout costs. For educators intent on reversing freshman failure, that would be good news indeed.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow and Carolina Journal columnist.