Giving freshmen a peace of mind; N. Texas leads way in separate schools for crucial 9th-grade year

Sunday, August 19, 2001
Page 1A

Giving freshmen a peace of mind
N. Texas leads way in separate schools for crucial 9th-grade year

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

When they arrive for the first day of school, high school freshmen are worried about finding their lockers, navigating the cafeteria and not getting lost on the way to algebra.

They probably don’t realize that it may be the most important time of their academic lives.

Research has long shown that academic habits, good or bad, are forged in the first few weeks of ninth grade. Previously solid students can lose their way; weaker students can move from “at-risk” to “dropout” with alarming speed.

North Texas is at the forefront of a national trend school leaders think will make the transition to high school smoother: special schools for freshmen only.

Nearly one in five Texas freshmen has to repeat the year. That’s true in suburban districts, including Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Cedar Hill and Denton.

In districts such as Dallas, more than one in three flunk the freshman year, a scary ratio considering research that shows students who repeat a grade are much more likely than their peers to drop out.

Six Dallas-area districts have ninth-grade-only schools, and more are likely to appear in the coming years. Texas Construction magazine recently cited the freshman school trend as one of the biggest reasons the state’s builders are expected to keep busy during the next few years.

“Ninth-graders are starting to get all the serious questions, about what they want to be when they grow up, their college plans,” said C. Jay Hertzog, dean of education at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and a researcher of the high school transition. “And there are all kinds of hormonal changes going on. They need some sort of a security blanket to get through that.”

Students and educators say the freshman campus concept can give ninth-graders the attention they need to succeed.

“I think it’s really cool we don’t have to be around a bunch of younger kids,” said Josh Balthrop, who started ninth grade at DeSoto High School’s freshmen-only campus last week. “And we don’t have to be around a bunch of older kids who intimidate us. It’s just us.”

A recent study of the Philadelphia school system – which has a ninth-grade failure rate almost identical to Dallas’ – showed how quickly academic habits can drop at the start of freshman year. For example, the study found that 17 percent of ninth-graders missed at least 10 of the first 30 days of school, up from only 4.7 percent among eighth-graders.

In Texas, 18.8 percent of ninth-graders have to repeat the grade. In contrast, 2.3 percent of eighth-graders and 7.8 percent of 10th-graders repeat.

New dropout data reported last week by the Texas Education Agency found that 7,630 ninth-graders dropped out last year, by far the highest total for any grade. Second-highest was 12th grade, with 4,660 dropouts.

In response to the potential problems of ninth grade, some school districts have decided to isolate freshmen in their own school. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Allen, DeSoto, Duncanville, Lewisville, Richardson and Rockwall have ninth-grade-only campuses, and Waxahachie is adding one next year. Most have opened in the last few years.

In 1992, there were only 35 ninth-grade-only schools in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. By 1999, there were 74, with Texas having the most. The state says there were 16 such schools in Texas last year.

Part of the reason Dallas-area districts have been at the forefront of the trend is that ninth-grade campuses also help solve a common problem for suburban districts: crowding caused by rapid growth.

When a high school gets too big, districts have several options. All of them pose problems, from dividing neighborhoods to splitting up winning football programs. Ninth-grade centers can be a stopgap. Pulling freshmen into their own school and leaving the high school for the top three grades can relieve pressure and let districts put off tough choices.

“This is really a five- or 10-year solution,” said Candace Ahlfinger, spokeswoman for the Waxahachie schools. “There was a desire not to divide us into a two-high-school town. The town comes out for events at the high school, and it unites the community.”

She said that if growth continues, the district could expand the ninth-grade center to house sophomores. Aside from more practical concerns, proponents say a ninth-grade campus gives freshmen opportunities to be campus leaders and reduces the chance that they will feel lost in a large school.

“I’ve been in education for 30 years, mostly at four-year high schools,” said Jim Yakubovsky, principal of DeSoto High School’s freshman campus. “And you really notice how much a freshman matures from August to May, physically, emotionally, socially. Separating them out gives these kids a chance to mature.”

Jana Vick, a teacher at DeSoto’s ninth-grade campus, said she prefers separating freshmen. Her three children attended DeSoto High School, and one is still there.

“Dropping a freshman boy off at a school with all those seniors and juniors and sophomores can be a little uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s easy for your kid to get intimidated by the older kids.”

In DeSoto, as at some other schools, freshmen who don’t get enough credits to become sophomores go ahead to the 10th-to-12th-grade campus, where they take the freshman-level classes they need to advance. That keeps repeating freshmen from passing their poor academic habits on to the next class of ninth-graders.

Steve Payne, principal of the Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, said the school was created in response to concerns about a higher-than-desired failure rate in the ninth grade. “We thought that once kids get through freshman and sophomore year, they can get all the way through,” he said.

He said that, since the freshman center opened in 1999, ninth-grade scores on end-of-course exams have gone up substantially. Two-thirds of freshmen are involved in extracurricular activities.

“The kids really come together as a class when they’re here,” he said.

But not everyone is as enamored by the concept. Northwest ISD opened a ninth-grade campus that was attached to the high school in 1992. In 1999, the district moved freshmen back into the main high school.

“We found that when you have [grades] nine to 12 in one building, it lets your teachers better plan with each other and coordinate what students need to learn each year to advance to the next class,” said Donna Criswell, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Officials also found that a large number of freshmen wanted to take classes that were offered only on the senior campus, forcing them to move between the two buildings during the day.

Northwest High School Principal Jim Chadwell said it was harder to create a unified sense of school spirit.

“With a quality nine-12 center, when students drive up to the building they feel like this is their place,” he said.

But he cautioned that without a special campus, it has become even more important to focus special attention on newcomers. He said the ninth-grade campus has been replaced with counseling and advising programs.

Rockwall officials also expect to eliminate their freshman center, opened in 1999, when the district opens its second high school in 2005.

While school leaders differ on how best to serve ninth-graders, there seems to be near unanimity that freshmen need attention and assistance to survive the high school transition.

“Some teachers think it’s babying to worry about the ninth-graders too much,” Dr. Hertzog said. “But they need to ask: Do you want these kids to graduate or not? If you don’t, keep doing things the way you’re doing them. If you do, you’ve got to make sure kids at this stage get all the help they need.”