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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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
The odds are worst for minority students. About one of every
four black, Hispanic and American Indian students don't get
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Scott also is in contact with parents, and he makes sure that
parent conferences are scheduled at their convenience, not the
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
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
10% - High school freshmen required to repeat ninth grade in the
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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