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Article of Interest - Drop Outs

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Bridges4Kids LogoNinth Grade Key to Attrition: 'Academies' Help Curb Dropout Rate
Many North Carolina students hit a brick wall in ninth grade. They fail too many classes to be promoted. They're held back. Some of them just drop out or will quit eventually.
by Todd Silberman, News Observer, March 7, 2004
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Many North Carolina students hit a brick wall in ninth grade. They fail too many classes to be promoted. They're held back. Some of them just drop out or will quit eventually.

A recent study of all 50 states cites North Carolina as having one of the nation's worst attrition rates between ninth and 10th grades. The state's sophomore class in 2000-01 shrank 18 percent from the freshman class the year before -- the result of students held back and others who just quit.

"The research shows pretty clearly that kids who fail are far more likely to drop out," said Walter Haney, an education professor at Boston College. "Simply flunking kids isn't a sound decision." He is a co-author of the report, which analyzed enrollment trends over the past 30 years.

The ninth-grade troubles are a big reason that the state's four-year graduation rate is barely 60 percent.

About 15 percent of high school freshmen in North Carolina were required to repeat ninth grade last year, up from 10 percent in the early 1990s. Wake held back almost 16 percent of its ninth-graders in 2002; Durham, almost 22 percent. Chapel Hill-Carrboro was better than the state average, at about 9 percent.

The odds are worst for minority students. About one of every four black, Hispanic and American Indian students don't get promoted.

Students are far more likely to be retained in ninth grade than at any other time in their schooling. Ninth grade is also the year that students are most likely to drop out.

That's what ninth-grader Mike Timblin, 17, did a few weeks ago. He was held back twice in elementary school, and recently was getting in trouble for skipping classes at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School.

"It's boring," he said. "I just didn't want to be there."

He said he has no interest in returning to high school and hopes to earn his GED through Vance-Granville Community College.

His mother wants him in school, Mike said. He tells her, "I'll get it straight later."

Failure amid success

Of the 19,000 North Carolina high school students who quit last year, more than a third were ninth-graders. But the reasons that students stumble in ninth grade are hard to untangle.

After all, the symptom of academic failure persists even while the path through elementary and middle schools is paved with success for increasing numbers of North Carolina students.

More North Carolina students are passing the state's end-of-grade tests in reading and math, and large percentages of them are clearing key promotion hurdles at third, fifth and eighth grades.

Yet many struggle with the shift from middle school to high school, where they are more likely to be left to sink or swim. Teachers tend to expect more of students, both in study habits and maturity. Family issues can be a factor. Students who've been held back reach their 16th birthday, the age at which state law allows students to drop out.

Some educators also wonder if an increased emphasis on testing is driving away some students.

"The pressure for testing prevents schools from helping these kids," said John Reimer, a middle school administrator in Lenoir County, former high school administrator and president of the N.C. Dropout Prevention Association. "A lot of things are being cut out because of the need to cover material."

Several courses that students take as ninth-graders at many high schools often include state-required "end-of-course" tests that must count for at least 25 percent of a student's final grade.

"Most of the testing program is centered in ninth grade," said John Williams, principal of Middle Creek High School in Cary. "There's less opportunity for classroom teachers to deal with issues relevant to [students'] lives outside the standard course of study."

How academies help

High school educators are finding that one way to help ninth-graders succeed is to carve out freshman "academies" -- either physically or in spirit -- that provide more support and closer contact with teachers. A few Triangle high schools have adopted such an approach, and 10 Wake high schools will launch similar programs beginning next year through a $2.5 million federal grant.

At Wake Forest-Rolesville High, one of three Wake schools that has already established a ninth-grade academy, the arrangement is making a difference. School officials said 92 percent of last year's freshmen earned promotion to 10th grade. Ninety-five percent did so the first year the academy was set up, in 2001-02.

The reason, teachers and other faculty members say, is a better focus on the needs of individual students and better communication among staff, students and their parents.

"The mortar for the bricks here is communication," said Bernard Scott, a ninth-grade counselor whose office is just steps away from the classrooms where nearly all freshmen spend at least part of each day.

Even though he's responsible for 550 ninth-graders, Scott said he now knows students better than before -- when he had a shorter roster of students at all four grade levels and his office was more isolated.

Halfway through last year, Charles Henderson was failing two classes and had a D in another.

Then Scott urged him to join a weekly study-skills group as a way to improve his grades.

"The biggest thing he did was to motivate us," said Charles, 17, now in 10th grade. "He'd encourage us. He'd ask us in the hallway how we were doing."

Charles said his teachers, too, were checking up on him -- in classes they weren't even teaching.

"What really helped me buckle down was realizing that I wanted to do something with my life and that I had to do something to get there," said Charles, who is hoping for a football scholarship.

Scott also is in contact with parents, and he makes sure that parent conferences are scheduled at their convenience, not the school's.

Ninth-grade teachers are in frequent contact with one another, too, both across the hall and across disciplines. At lunch, students can gather in the ninth-grade center to socialize, relax on a comfortable couch, study or use computers.

"We're all right here," said Sandra Henegar, a longtime ninth-grade English teacher. "It has made a world of difference."

Ninth-grade focus

Andrew Markoch, an assistant principal who administers the ninth-grade academy, said one big advantage of the program is its single-minded focus.

"We get involved early. We don't have to think about 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students," Markoch said. "And we tell students, 'We're going to bug the daylights out of you to make sure you pass.' "

That message may have come too late for Mike Timblin, but it made a difference for Allison Young.

She didn't pass enough courses last school year to reach 10th grade in August, despite prodding from Scott and others.

She turned things around in the fall, though, and with yearlong classes now compressed into semesters in Wake Forest-Rolesville's block schedule, she was promoted to the 10th grade.

"They work with you," Allison said of the ninth-grade academy. "If you're having problems, they'll help you through them."

Allison said both Markoch and Scott advised her how to budget her time and improve her study skills. And she was a regular lunchtime visitor at the ninth-grade center.

"You can hang out with friends or you can do your homework," she said. "I'd go there three or four times a week."

Even now, in 10th grade, she still goes.



60% - North Carolina four-year graduation rate
15% - High school freshmen required to repeat ninth grade last year
10% - High school freshmen required to repeat ninth grade in the early 1990s
16% - Ninth graders held back last year in Wake County
22% - Ninth graders held back last year in Durham
9% - Ninth graders held back last year in Chapel Hill
1 IN 4 Black, Hispanic and American Indian students held back

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