Notice to incoming freshmen: High school may be hazardous to your academic health.

That, in essence, is the message of an ongoing study of the transition from 8th grade to 9th grade in the Chicago public schools.

Freshman failures

In a review of student transcripts from 1992, researchers found that 50 percent of all freshmen failed at least one first-semester course—primarily English, math, science or social studies, the core academic regimen students must master for success in school. Worse yet, only 29 percent of these freshmen broke free of failure the second semester, with 71 percent continuing to fail as many or even more courses.

Over all, preliminary results of the study, conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, paint a picture of routine failure and few safety nets for freshmen, who are grappling with the physical and social rites of passage into adolescence.

“We need to be setting up an environment that takes into account kids’ developmental needs,” says Melissa Roderick, the University of Chicago assistant professor who directed the study. “So much of this failure rate [is] adolescents who encounter difficulty, then act like adolescents.”

For example, a 9th-grade student who clashes with a teacher may cut a class rather than work through the tension day to day. And attendance is closely associated with failure. In the study, 9th-graders who missed up to five days of school stood a 29 percent chance of getting an F in a core subject. The rate more than doubled to 61 percent for those who missed 15 or more days.

Another reason behind 9th-grade academic troubles is a lack of basic reading and math skills—a problem the Reform Board’s new promotion policy aims to solve. Still, low-achieving 8th-grade graduates aren’t the only freshmen failing. Students who test at or above grade level are vulnerable as well. Even freshmen who enter high school with 10th-grade reading scores have a 22 percent chance of receiving an F, the Consortium found.

Freshman academies

For Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, the chief remedy is the creation of “freshman academies” at every high school in the system. They may be a distinct place within a high school, or they may be just a set of practices that pay special attention to the needs of the neophytes. As articulated by board administrators, they amount to a call to do something.

“The whole idea is to try,” says Roderick. “If something doesn’t work, try something else.”

The board’s stated goals for freshman academies are threefold: Restructure high schools. Teach students the skills and values necessary to get a job. Improve academic achievement.

Roderick says the overarching goals should be: Set and follow-up on high expectations. Monitor students closely. Provide individual support.

Eric Camburn, a co-author of the Consortium report, stresses that a freshman academy must be more than a place. Segregating freshmen from upperclassmen may avert some minor altercations, he says, but does little to address academic failure rates.

Of the city’s 74 high schools, 62 are developing full or partial freshman academy programs. About half embraced the idea when it was originally presented last year. Those schools drafted program proposals last spring, attended training workshops over the summer and launched full-scale programs in September. Each received $100,000 in seed money.

The rest joined the board’s $4.7 million effort much later—the result of a late summer press by Board President Gery Chico to get every school to sign up. With little time, no training and only $35,000 to work with, many of these schools struggled to set up some semblance of a freshman academy program.

Problems with academy beginnings

Educators, reform groups and even students agree that high schools need to make major changes to ease the 9th-grade transition process. But some disapprove of the School Board’s headlong rush to install freshman academies in all schools this year, particularly with other major initiatives, such as probation, coming on line.

At some schools, notes Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), “Programs were thrown together.”

However, she applauds Chicago school officials for recognizing that high schools must pay as much attention to freshmen as they do college-bound seniors. “One good thing—they are actually helping the kids before it’s too late,” she says.

Chicago High School for Agricultural Science and Bowen High School were among the schools pressed into last-minute action.

The Ag School created what it calls Homework Central, late afternoon sessions that initially ran until 4:40 p.m. However, parents complained that that was too late for students to begin the long trek home from the Southwest Side magnet school. The school then devised a complicated system of adding extra time to freshman classes three days a week so that it could squeeze the homework sessions into a fourth day, when other students get out early.

Even prior to the board’s freshman academy push, Ag School freshmen already were required to attend four weeks of summer school. The program serves as an orientation to both the agriculture industry and the school. The purpose, says Principal Barbara Valerious, is to give freshmen a dose of the heavy course load and long school day they will encounter during the regular school year. “Our kids are overwhelmed,” she says.

For its partial program, Bowen opted to hold twice-weekly, after-school tutorials. But the class is not required and offers no credit, so only a handful of students have been showing up.

“Next semester we’re going to fix that,” says George Schmidt, Bowen’s freshman academy coordinator. The voluntary program did not work because freshmen at risk don’t take the initiative to help themselves. “It’s not their fault at the age of 14,” he says.

Beginning in February, the after-school sessions will be required for all freshmen who fail one or more classes. That could affect as many as 150 freshmen, estimates Schmidt. Also next month, Bowen freshmen will begin publishing a newspaper of their own.

Privately, some educators complain that their own programs were addressing the same problems but in a different way. For example, schools-within-schools divide a school vertically rather than horizontally, creating a smaller, more supportive environment for groups of students that include freshmen through seniors.

“We thought we were doing a lot of those things already,” says one high school administrator.

Reviewing schools’ efforts, Roderick says, “I don’t agree with everything I see, but I agree with the general impetus.” The Consortium has been asked to evaluate the programs, but no agreement is in place.

Academy components

It wasn’t until freshman academy grants had been made that board officials published a list of possible components of a freshman academy. The brochure lists a core curriculum as an option, but the administration is readying a core curriculum as a mandate. Other components are:

INTEGRATED CURRICULUM Teachers in core academic classes and electives would work together to coordinate projects and homework so that courses would complement each other. The idea is to increase students’ engagement by putting subject matter in a broader context and showing them how one subject can be used to understand another.

At Chicago Ag School, for example, teachers in the biology, English and computer science departments are coordinating their efforts to assist freshmen with science fair projects. At Kenwood Academy High School, geometry teachers worked with art and drafting instructors so students could see the practical applications of an abstract subject.

SKILL LABS Reading, math and writing labs would reinforce basic skills and help prepare students for standardized achievement tests.

FRESHMEN-ONLY TEACHERS A group of teachers would be selected to teach only freshmen. The goal is to have teachers get to know the students and their needs better so that students will feel more comfortable asking for help. When Hyde Park Career Academy set up a freshman school in 1991, “teaching freshmen was punishment,” says Anita Harmon, director of guidance. “Everyone wanted to teach the AP classes.” However, teachers have come around since then and enjoy the challenge, she says.

AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMS Schools would provide homework centers, tutoring sessions or other programs that extend the school day for an extra period. These classes would operate like supervised study halls, with a teacher or counselor on hand to answer questions and give advice.

At Kenwood Academy, for example, all freshmen meet 9th period in “cluster” classes that cover topics like time management, test-taking skills and conflict resolution.

ALTERNATIVE SCHEDULING Double-period classes for an integrated presentation of two subjects—English and history, for example—or for a double dose of one subject. In September, Bogan Computer Tech High School switched to double-period classes for the four core classes freshmen take. As a result, students take English and computer science one semester and math and lab science the other.

“Fifty-minute periods [the standard in Chicago] work well for kids who are aggressive, think fast and ask for help,” says Melissa Roderick. “Not for kids who feel lost.”

Hyde Park Career Academy has a variation on the more-time theme. Freshmen who have not completed their work by the end of a marking period or are doing less than C-level work, get an incomplete or P grade for participation.

“That can be removed if they complete their work within a designated time frame,” says Principal Weldon Beverly. “Some [freshman academy] models allow kids to work until senior year. We don’t believe in that.”

School officials also recommend formal tutoring and counseling programs for freshmen, with extra attention given to those who need more help.

Academy pioneers

Hyde Park is among a number of schools that have paid formal attention to the needs of freshmen for years. The school officially recognized transition as early as 1988, with “Starting on the Right Foot,” a program that brought freshman-level teachers together with teachers from Hyde Park’s elementary feeder schools to acquaint them with what would be expected of their students. In 1991, Hyde Park added a summer orientation program for 8th-grade graduates and created a cadre of freshman-only teachers.

And block scheduling for all students is firmly established at Manley High in East Garfield Park and Robeson High in Englewood. At Robeson, double periods are standard for all classes except P. E. Part of the goal at Robeson is to supplement lectures with hands-on learning activities. (See CATALYST, September 1994.)

Schools that bought into the Vallas effort early are trying yet other approaches. Some have limited the independence of freshmen by confining them to school grounds with closed-campus restrictions. Others have mandated participation in extracurricular activities, as a way for teachers and students to form closer ties. And a half dozen elementary schools have gotten into the act by adding a 9th grade.

As the first semester came to a close, school officials admit they do not yet have a handle on whether individual programs are succeeding. Overall, 9th-grade attendance rates are improving at schools with full academy programs, says Beverly LaCoste, who directed the freshman academy program from August through mid-January.

The program’s effect on grades remains to be seen. LaCoste declines to release the average mid-semester failure rate. That number is tainted, she says, because it includes grades for second-year freshmen who have not yet passed last year’s coursework. First-semester results for freshmen who entered high school this fall won’t be available until February.

“Some schools are working well, others are not,” concedes LaCoste, formerly principal of Kenwood Academy.

A national concern

Chicago is not the only city grappling with transition issues.

Three years ago, Detroit school officials were so alarmed by an escalating freshman dropout rate that they proposed removing all 9th-graders from high schools and placing them in separate 9th-grade academies or in middle schools. While that plan was not adopted, each of Detroit’s 28 high schools launched its own program for 9th-graders.

Most center on making teachers, social workers and administrators more accessible to freshmen, says Eddie Green, a region superintendent who helped spearhead 9th-grade programs.

In Baltimore, Patterson High School has had much success with its freshman academy, which Chicago school officials visited. However, Patterson followed a different time line than Chicago has adopted.

After a year of study and planning, the school adopted a model created by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, which is working with the city’s high schools to improve attendance and achievement while reducing drop-out and failure rates. The model provides for a Ninth Grade Success Academy as a separate entity with its own teachers, administrators and building entrance. Several academies are set up for older students, each with a career focus and a college preparatory curriculum.

After the academies opened, the attendance rate of freshmen jumped 9.4 percentage points, and the schoolwide average rose 6.1 points to 77.7 percent. (At 61.5 percent, Austin Community Academy had the lowest attendance rate last year among regular high schools in Chicago.)

In the 1993-94 academic year, 80 percent of Patterson’s freshmen flunked 9th grade; two years later, it was just the opposite, with 85 percent promoted to the sophomore level.

“Some had to go to summer school, but they were willing to do that to keep up with their classmates,” says James McPartland, director of high school programs at Hopkins’ Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.

Patterson succeeded because its small schools program attacked both student apathy and anonymity, says McPartland. To break the cycle of failure, disengaged students must see a reason to study and must connect with someone who has their best interest at heart. “When you can wrap the program into a career focus, the school starts having some meaning, some focus, some direction,” he adds.

Developing a good program takes time, he cautions. “It can’t be rushed into, or it really won’t have the kind of commitment from teachers it needs,” he says.

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