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April 2013 Vol. 20. No. 5 Focus on Getting to Graduation

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Paying attention to 9th graders

Graduation rates keep climbing, but many students still founder in the first year of high school.

By by Dale Mezzacappa
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Freshmen (from left) Jimik Ligon, Nychelle Hamiel, and Tyreek Bookard confer between classes at Mastery-Gratz High School. The students said that they appreciate the personal attention they get in the school’s self-contained 9th-grade academy. “They give us a lot of opportunities,” said Hamiel, who is in the honors program.

Philadelphia’s graduation rate continues to improve, yet only about two-thirds of students who start 9th grade in public schools get a diploma four years later. 

As the Notebook does its eighth annual edition focusing on the city’s dropout crisis, this is both encouraging and sobering news.

Encouraging because the gains are slow and steady, which makes it more likely that they are real, said Ruth Curran Neild, lead author of Unfulfilled Promise, the 2006 report that first offered hard data and highlighted the depth of the problem in Philadelphia.

But sobering because there are entrenched issues that the city’s educational leaders have yet to conquer. One of those is 9th grade, still where most dropouts run aground.

Stories in this issue illustrate this problem. District high school principals talk about difficulties they face. We visit an alternative school where those who fell behind are trying to catch up, and two turnaround charter high schools that rely heavily on strict discipline and “meeting kids where they are.” Often, that means on a 4th-grade reading level. 

Students report obstacles to successfully completing 9th grade such as bullying and fights, but also a constant churn of teachers and the inability to get academic help when they need it. 

Ninth graders need more adults per student, the most expert teachers, and an array of social services, Neild said. But in the traditional high school, that rarely happens. 

“It’s expensive,” said Neild, now with the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Philadelphia, she said, has been adept at piloting promising programs but then letting them wither.

And with stricter academic requirements imminent – Keystone subject-matter exams soon required for graduation and the Common Core standards that will ratchet up instruction – finding the money and the will to help students in high-poverty neighborhoods will become even more important.

Project U-Turn is funding a rigorous follow-up study to Unfulfilled Promise, investigating what accounts for the increase in graduation rates – providing more detail on which schools and student subgroups are driving the improvement – and also tracking students’ post-secondary outcomes. The report is expected in early 2014. 

Comments (4)

Submitted by Barbara Bloom (not verified) on March 28, 2013 11:45 am
In the mid-90s I was privileged to volunteer with AMY-Northwest where Holly Perry was principal. The school offered smaller class size and an excellent learning environment to 6th through 8th graders and prepared them so well that their students continuing on to high school had the highest rate of completion of 9th grade. (The district did not, to the best of my knowledge, do anything with this data.)
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 29, 2013 2:33 pm
Sub-title to edition: FOUNDER or FLOUNDER-was this a proof reading error?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2013 8:49 am
not first... it should be flounder, not founder. Poor form being on the front page sub-title. Better luck next time.
Submitted by Carol (not verified) on June 9, 2014 4:21 am
This year there weren't so many drop outs in 9th grade and they seem to really enjoy school. All those programs made last year have good results that we can see right now.

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