Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Failing the grade

How about you, the school districts, enforce policies against bullying, hazing or pranks?

Wouldn't that be less costly?

Isn't this really your failure not that of the ninth graders?

Avoiding schools of hard knocks
By Eva Ruth Moravec: Express-News

These days, more and more high school freshmen are avoiding upper classmen's pranks — and the embarrassments they incite — by spending their first year outside of a high school.

Studies have shown ninth-graders are more likely to graduate if their transition from a middle school to a high school campus is softened by a year spent with only other ninth-graders. It's a trend that's taking hold nationwide, and sparking interest in San Antonio.

Two local districts — Southside and Southwest — plan to set up separate buildings to house freshmen in an effort to reduce the number of students who drop out.

“Research indicates that the transition between the eighth and ninth grade is a difficult transition for our students, and that's indicated by the high dropout rate among that population,” Southside Superintendent Juan Jasso said.

Moving from a middle school to a high school, where a student is one of thousands, is a difficult change, said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board and founding director of High Schools That Work, a nonprofit school improvement initiative based in Atlanta.

“High schools need to see that ninth-graders get the support they need to succeed. If they have an opportunity to see a reason to stay in school, they are much more likely to finish,” Bottoms said.

Southside High School ninth-grade annex Principal Gilbert Olivarri stands in the hall of what will be the new annex.

According to an October 2007 Texas Education Agency report, more than 16 percent of ninth-graders don't make it to the 10th grade. TEA's most recent report on Texas high school dropouts says 8.8 percent of freshmen that began high school in 2002 didn't graduate four years later in 2006. That's up from 4.3 percent for the class of 2005.

In Southside Independent School District, 79 of 426 ninth-grade students, or 18.5 percent, didn't make it to 10th grade in 2006, according to TEA. The district will welcome about 400 freshmen to its new ninth-grade annex in August.

Students in the annex, located next to the high school, will spend the entire day separated from upper classmen and will have their own faculty of about 20 teachers, led by an academic dean.
Jasso said a committee looked at studies and visited other school districts to come up with the model, which then was shared with students and parents.

“Ninth grade is going to be a year that is spent working on skills that are going to help in their high school futures,” Jasso said. “They have been coming into a high school where there are 1,400 kids; now they're coming into one that is smaller than their middle school.”

Nearby Southwest ISD will follow Southside's lead in August 2009.

“Our initial concerns were large numbers at the high school — with 3,000 students — and the number of students not having success with passing TAKS and dropping out of school,” Southwest Superintendent Velma Villegas said.

In both Southside and Southwest, teachers and administrators are receiving special training on how to strengthen teams and provide more support for freshmen, which studies say is crucial.

The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, which looks at how junior high and middle school students perform in high school, recommends policy makers and school districts “comprehensively address and incorporate proven strategies for school improvement, including setting high standards for all students, creating a personalized and caring learning environment and providing students with the academic, social-emotional, health and other services they need to succeed.”
Most of the city's districts aren't turning to ninth-grade campuses to curb dropout rates. Northside ISD, the largest in San Antonio, follows a traditional ninth-through-12th-grade model.
The change is easier for small districts like Southside with 5,000 students and Southwest with 11,000, but would be a logistical and financial nightmare for a district like Northside with 87,000 students.
“It would be cost-prohibitive to redesign and build separate ninth-grade facilities,” Northside ISD spokesman Pascual Gonzalez said. “Special efforts are made to address the issues of ninth-graders. We know if we can get them through the ninth grade, the students have a greater chance at graduating from high school.”