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Back to school: Ninth grade proves to be a pivotal year for youths

Tuesday, August 24, 1999

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Good morning, class. Look around you. Nearly one out of four of you won't get promoted at the end of this school year.

 
  Krissy Stover and her classmates settle in for the start of ninth-grade orientation at Plum High School yesterday. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Welcome to the ninth grade in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Nearly one-fourth of ninth-graders -- 23.4 percent -- didn't pass enough courses to be promoted to the 10th grade at the end of the 1997-98 school year.

By fall of last year, after some students had left school, met requirements or were placed in 10th-grade homerooms, 19.9 percent of the ninth-grade class was repeating the year.

But it's not just Pittsburgh. Nationwide, the average percentage for the retention, or holding back, of ninth-graders is in the mid-20s, according to a survey of 400 high schools and their sending middle schools.

"Retention is all over the place. What's happened is ninth grade has become the holding tank for the high schools," said Jay Hertzog, dean of the College of Education at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

He and colleague Lena Morgan at the State University of West Georgia conducted the survey about a year ago.

"We've seen some schools that have retentions as high as 45 percent of the ninth grade class," said Hertzog.

Ninth grade is considered a pivotal year for determining whether a student will ever graduate from high school. In Allegheny County, nearly 1,000 ninth-graders were held back at the end of the 1997-98 school year.

 
   

This is the third article in an eight-part PG series examining a range of educational issues.

Previous articles:

Part I: A shortage of principals.

Part II: Non-Catholic families are finding Catholic schools a blessing

 
 

While the standards for retaining a student vary throughout the nation, Pittsburgh Public Schools students must pass four credits in the ninth grade to become 10th-graders. One credit typically is a one-year course, such as English or math.

Even those four credits don't put them a quarter of the way toward graduation. A diploma requires 22 credits, so they'll need to earn credits at a faster rate if they clear only four as ninth-graders.

The statistics for ninth grade at the end of the 1997-98 school year in the city show some of the risks students face:

The lowest attendance in any grade level was in ninth grade. The average attendance was 78 percent, compared with 92.5 percent in first grade and 80.9 percent in 12th grade. And it's a drop from the 86.3 percent attendance recorded for eighth grade.

The largest percentage of failing grades -- 25.5 percent -- was in ninth grade, but only 5.7 percent of the grades in eighth grade were failing grades.

The highest percentage of "over-age" students is in the ninth grade. Nearly 14 percent of ninth-graders were at least 16.5 years old at the end of the school year.

About one in three, or 33.8 percent, of all ninth-graders was suspended out-of-school, less than the district high of 37 percent in eighth grade.

"A lot of it comes down to the way we're thrusting responsibility on kids before they're ready for it," Hertzog said. "The traditional high school is not developmentally appropriate for ninth-graders.

"Another thing is we're not willing to put our political and financial money where our mouth is. We say we want kids to succeed, but we put 25 to 30 kids in one classroom."

He says some freshmen arrive scared at high school. In eighth grade, some are told: "You might be able to get away with this now. Don't try it next year."

"Some of them have set themselves up to fail," Hertzog said. "They don't like the pressure. They feel they're under pressure socially and academically, and they just are afraid they won't make it."

He says it's critical for schools to build bridges between eighth and ninth grades. He recommends getting everyone involved, including eighth-grade and ninth-grade teachers, administrators, parents and the freshmen themselves, to plan activities to smooth the transition. Such activities can include small-group tours, shadowing other students and pairing ninth-graders with older students.

Teaching patterns can be changed, including assigning teachers strictly to ninth grade or having teachers teach eighth and then ninth grade for continuity. He said a cluster of teachers could work with the same group of students.

While many districts have high schools serving grades nine through 12, some have buildings with seventh through 12th or 10th through 12th or other combinations.

Whatever the arrangement, Hertzog said, the retention problem typically intensifies once students need to earn a certain number of credits to be promoted, usually in ninth grade. He said small schools with kindergarten through 12th grade under one roof had the lowest dropout and retention rates.

 
    More about ninth grade:

Launch freshmen in the right direction

PG Online chart: Ninth-graders held back

 
 

Hertzog says smaller schools with fewer than 500 students typically have few retentions and dropouts while schools with 1,000 to 1,500 tend to have high numbers of retentions and dropouts. In Pennsylvania, the rules generally allow students to drop out at the age of 16.

"It's because teachers [in small schools] know the kids," he said.

The numbers fall in larger schools with more than 1,500 students because many are creating "schools within a school" to provide a smaller school atmosphere.

Timothy Young, principal of Chartiers Valley High School, which last year had about 1,000 students, said five of the 273 ninth-graders were held back at the end of the last school year. That's less than 2 percent. Some may have completed the needed credits in summer school.

Even so, Young said, "ninth grade is probably our most difficult year as far as transition."

He thinks a big reason the rate is so low is that parents are involved and supportive of discipline in the school. He said teachers will go out of their way to help students, including giving weekly reports to parents if they want them or calling parents regularly. Extra classroom help also is provided in classes for lower-achieving students.

At Plum High School, a pilot program is being created for at-risk ninth-graders who have had academic, discipline or other problems but do not need special education services.

For students in the program, regular education teachers taking on extra teaching periods instead of duty periods will teach four core academic subjects, art and physical education in classes open only to their groups -- expected to be fewer than 10 students. A guidance counselor will work with them on career exploration and study, and social and other skills.

While their classes are small, the students will be taught at the same pace as others in the school with the goal of returning them to regular classes within 12 weeks. As other ninth-graders have difficulties, they will have chances to move into the program, known as the transition school.

City high school principals said they, too, are working to try to smooth the transition from eighth to ninth grade to encourage success.

"We have to get more ninth-graders actively engaged in the learning process. As schools, we must investigate ways to do that," said Cassandra Richardson Kemp, the principal of Oliver High School.

At the end of 1997-98, 151 ninth-graders were held back at Oliver.

This will be the fourth year Oliver has put all ninth-graders on teams, a concept that is popular in middle schools. A team of teachers works with the same students so they can know the students better and follow them more closely.

Kemp said the approach was so successful that it was added to the 10th grade last year.

The school also tries to arrange other opportunities for mentorships or for developing relationships, including an arts collaborative with the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, in which 60 ninth-graders take academic classes at Oliver and work with artists at the Manchester center. This program, which continues in subsequent years, has improved attendance, Kemp said.

Oliver ninth-graders also have to take a semester course in conflict mediation and a semester course in "success strategies" that emphasizes literacy.

According to Langley High School principal Larry Hubbard, ninth-graders have "a greater responsibility than ever before. They have to be more of a self-learner.

"You also have the catching up of the reading problems," he said. "If the child has had a reading problem and didn't learn how to read by the time they exited third grade, now those reading problems begin to manifest themselves more. Now you're asked to process more information."

At Langley, where 82 ninth-graders were held back at the end of the 1997-98 school year, administrators are trying to enhance the organizational skills of ninth-graders. Students get an organizer for recording assignments, and can take an elective course that emphasizes study skills.

During the fall term, Allderdice High School also will offer a study skills course.

School officials are trying to develop closer links to parents, including more parent involvement and teacher calls to the home when a student isn't doing well.

"It's easy to fall behind quickly. If the school and the parents don't develop this partnership together to really work, the student can fall behind and have difficulty catching up if we don't have our supports in place," said Allderdice Principal Robert McMurray.

"We know every student who comes to us wants to be successful and wants to be respected. Sometimes they don't have a clear definition of what success is."

Tomorrow: A look at "character education" programs.



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