9th grade is still where most fall off track
Giving students personalized attention in large high schools continues to be a challenge.
by Paul Jablow
Sheila Hernandez was 15 when she quit Frankford High School in the 9th grade. There was a lot of fighting in the school, and Hernandez, a slight girl with her hair cut short, was also bullied over her appearance.
When she had problems academically, she said, “I’d ask for help, and they wouldn’t give it to you.”
Damaries Rodriguez got pregnant in 9th grade and dropped out of Franklin Learning Center because she found she had too much work to make up when she returned.
Angel Sostre found 9th grade at Edison High School to be a miserable experience, because “they kept changing my roster. They kept changing teachers, and I had trouble keeping up to the work.” He lasted only a short while in 10th grade before leaving school.
Unlike most dropouts from the Philadelphia schools, all three are now in alternative high schools designed to give students a second chance at earning a diploma – Hernandez at El Centro de Estudiantes in Norris Square, and Rodriguez and Sostre at the Fairhill campus of One Bright Ray Community High School.
But like many dropouts, they are living examples of how the 9th grade in Philadelphia and other major cities remains the place where the most students get sidetracked from the path toward graduation.
Educators and administrators cite both lack of resources and lack of creative vision as reasons this 9th-grade problem remains unsolved today.
A 2010 Research for Action report on the freshman year called for District-level changes, saying the system “inhibits the ability of neighborhood high schools to organize themselves to support new 9th graders.”
Charles Baltimore, the new principal of Edison High School, said the schools themselves must change.
“We’re trying to drive a 2013 car with a 1965 engine, and it’s not going to work,” he said. “Ninth grade is unique. [Students] are coming from a more self-contained culture. The academic demands step up a couple of notches.
“They’re dealing with deaths, parents being separated, dad in jail, mom in jail. ... We’re not dealing with the trauma the kids bring in the door. ... We say, ‘Sit there for eight hours, learn the content, be respectful and come back tomorrow.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
According to data from Project U-Turn, a citywide anti-dropout campaign managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, roughly one-third of the District’s 9th graders in 2011-12 were “off track” to graduate – likely to drop out. That’s more than in any other grade.
Off-track 9th graders were defined as those who met at least one of four criteria:
- failed an English course;
- failed a math course;
- earned less than five credits;
- had attendance of less than 70 percent.
“Even students who were doing moderately well in the middle grades can be knocked off the path to graduation by the new academic demands and social pressures of high school,” wrote researchers Ruth Curran Neild, Robert Balfanz and Liza Herzog in a 2007 article in the journal Educational Leadership.
Students may be asked to help out at home as caregivers or even wage-earners, girls may become pregnant, and a high-school-age student hanging out on the corner on a school day draws less attention than a 6th grader would.
“When you’re an adolescent, you have more choices,” Herzog, who is research director at the Philadelphia Education Fund, said in an interview. “You get more knowledgeable about what’s out there.”
Marcus Delgado, chief executive officer of One Bright Ray, agrees. “Ninth grade is where more freedoms come out, and that’s where the ‘explosion’ happens.”
The warning signs, though, are there early. “In Philadelphia,” Herzog said, “we can identify 75 percent of the future dropouts as early as 6th grade.”
A study that followed 13,000 Philadelphia students from 1996 to 2004 identified key early warning indicators. For instance, it found that of 6th graders who average one or more absences a week, just 13 percent graduated on time. With more than one “flag,” the graduation rates were even lower.
Most are still in school when 9th grade starts.
But, like Angel Sostre, they often find themselves thrust into a more bewildering and impersonal atmosphere, particularly in large, neighborhood high schools.
“There’s so much going on in their heads, and we’re putting them in the most dispassionate places,” said David Bromley, executive director of Big Picture Philadelphia, which runs El Centro de Estudiantes.
Sostre, Hernandez, and Rodriguez, all about to graduate from alternative schools, say they have thrived there because they have received a level of individual attention that they did not get in the large, traditional schools where they started.
“Here, you can pull anyone aside and ask for help,” Rodriguez said.
Neighborhood schools can do a better job in providing an individualized atmosphere, Herzog said. It would help simply to make sure that the teachers get more common planning time, particularly for any student clearly in danger of dropping out.
“It’s working together to get a more holistic understanding of what’s going on in that student’s life,” she said. “It sounds so basic, but it’s rarely done.”
Herzog and others say that much of what needs to be done is basic, but it runs up against bureaucracy, habit, and lack of resources.