Ninth grade: Make or break

Ninth grade is the make or break year for students, reports the Portland Oregonian. Of those who earn 5.5 credits of a possible six, 78 percent will go on to earn a diploma. Only 20 percent of students who finish ninth grade with 5 or fewer credits will graduate.

Portland schools are offering “smaller classes, reinforcement in reading and math and personal follow-ups with students who miss class the most” in hopes of keeping low-performing ninth graders on track.

Samantha Steadman goes to Tigard High, which enrolled her in summer school before ninth grade.

. . . she has David Tolbert, a teacher who sees her for a support class every other day.  . . . He knows Sam’s story, including her history of getting in fights and trying drugs, her struggles with spelling and reading.

Tolbert preaches a constant drumbeat of what Sam needs to do and offers her advice and help to complete assignments, turn in homework and work out conflicts with teachers.

Finally, Sam has linguistics class with Marc Jolley.

. . . Jolley’s class targets a hard-core group: Students who’ve reached high school after years of frustration and failure because they read and write at only about a fifth-grade level.

Sam and 18 other students spend 90 minutes with Jolley every day — twice as much as other students spend in freshman English classes.

. . . The material is unrelenting. But these students are on it. Jolley says that’s because they quickly figure out that nose-to-the-grindstone learning in this class pays off.

It’s helping, claims a BridgeSpan report.  Here’s the podcast.

Is ninth grade too late? Failure starts in fourth grade, says an educator of dropouts in this AP story.

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  1. Every year is a make-or-break year in some way. You can lose them at any time. If you look in the archives here you’ll find posts that identify risk factors that show up in 1st grade.

    These programs at the high school level do work. I’ve been part of a team developing a menu of approaches in my building, and we’ve seen our drop-out rate shrink 10% – 15%. We haven’t reached a 100% graduation rate, but one year we missed it by only one kid.

    The down side is, these programs are very expensive. If I’m teaching two support classes with about 10 kids each, that’s about 50-60 kids in a regular English section that I’m not and has to be staffed. In other words, staffing has really been increased 4 1/2 sections — nearly one full-time person — instead of the 2 it would appear on the surface. With the state increasing graduation requirements, putting more pressure on staffing, and the economy tanking, I suspect to see these effective programs cut within the next few years.

    Just in terms of numbers, we have a relatively small at-risk population in a school of about 1500 kids. The programs in place have added about 6 staff positions — a whole department.

  2. greifer says:

    re: 4th grade:

    while they are definite problems before 4th grade, I think the reason people cite this age as the “make or break” is twofold: 1) it’s the first age where the adults admit that the child can no longer “catch up” and 2) it’s the age when the students themselves recognize and self segregate according to who they believe is going to college.

    to point 1: the reason the adults admit it at this age but not earlier is becaues the content and type of curricula is changed. Now, children are taking social studies, where their participating and learning depends upon their reading skills; their math is moving towards computation with fractions and abstractions like algebra–you need to know your multiplication tables cold to do this. up until this age, the teacher can keep pretending “oh, well, they’ll get it next year.” but not after 4th grade.

    to point 2: The college bound will largely stop socializing with the non-college bound at 4th grade; likewise, those who view themselves as poor students will no longer see any chance of trying to become something else. Of course you can still fall off the college bound track at any point, but it becomes almost impossible to get back on it. Those children who see themselves as incapable in school in 4th grade begin to make choice of their own that sabotage their future.

  3. > Students who’ve reached high school after years of frustration
    > and failure because they read and write at only about a fifth-grade level.

    If a corporation were as dysfunctional as a school system that permits this, it would be called General Motors.

  4. I agree with greifer about 4th grade being the tipping point towards content that must be learned through reading and requires mastery of math basics, but I think there’s another contributing factor.

    I’m not an el ed teacher, but my impression is that the designation of “learning disabled” is often based on a child’s actual performance being at least 2 years behind his expected (based on specific testing). I think part of the problem is the practice of waiting until that point is reached before trying to remediate; meanwhile pretending that the kid wil “get it when he’s ready.” I’d really like to see what would happen if schools went back to the explicit teaching of phonics, spelling etc. and math, BEFORE kids fall 2 + years behind; doing it right the first time. I went to a tiny school where homogeneous grouping was not possible, but there were 2-3 math groups and 3 reading groups in each grade (about 30 kids/grade) and everyone learned to read in first grade (no kindergarten), even though there were differences in fluency/vocabulary as we went through the grades. Since that requires homogeneous grouping and teacher-centered instruction, it’s not likely to happen…