9th grade is still where most fall off track

Giving students personalized attention in large high schools continues to be a challenge.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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.

The 2010 Research for Action study found that neighborhood high schools were filled with 9th graders who had tried unsuccessfully to select a different school. Compounding that problem, the neighborhood schools were late to receive any information about the 9th graders who would be arriving in the fall.

But Marlene Owens, who deals directly with dropout issues as director of the Smaller Learning Communities program for the School District, has seen positive changes from the Summer Bridge program that brings incoming 9th graders to the high school they will be attending for five weeks of instruction and orientation.

Her office also heads the RTII (Response to Instruction and Intervention) program, which uses federal grant funds in 11 large high schools with low test scores.

The program funds staff who “bring the behavior and the academic side together,” she said. “We haven’t always done that.”

The grant funds, however, run out in September. Owens said the District will apply for a one-year extension.

Given its budget crisis, the District will also be looking for cost-free improvements. One has been in place for years now – having 9th-grade students in the larger high schools housed together on the same floor.

More important, Owens said, is attention to who is teaching the 9th-grade remedial courses.

“When we put them into place a few years ago,” she said, “some of the teachers [who were assigned] saw it as punishment. Now principals understand that we need their great teachers in the intervention classes.”

Lisa Nutter, president of the nonprofit Philadelphia Academies, warns, however, that the remedial work must be “contextualized so it isn’t boring. … The students need to see the relevance of what they’re doing.”

Nutter’s program aims to engage students by creating small, career-oriented schools within schools, enrolling some 3,000 students in 13 schools, including eight neighborhood high schools.

She said she would prefer to start the model in 9th grade, but has been asked in most of the neighborhood schools to wait until the 10th so remedial work can be completed beforehand.

Meanwhile, the changes in the shrinking District are already taking their toll. With the closing of several high schools, some of the schools receiving new students may be unable to offer the Summer Bridge program as they prepare for the transition.

Several initiatives started under Hite’s predecessor, the late Arlene Ackerman, including additional school counselors, were funded with federal stimulus money that is gone.

Edison’s principal, Baltimore has six counselors for some 1,200 students, but two are supported by federal grants that may soon expire. When he goes to principals’ meetings, he hears that “the budget cuts have crippled some schools. No police, no NTAs (non-teaching assistants).”

But Baltimore said that much can still be done within the confines of tight District budgets: “I play the hand I’m dealt,” he said.

He is seeking approval of the School Advisory Council to have teachers in grades 9 through 11 move through high school with their students. He hopes to have career and technical education students help rehab two abandoned houses in the neighborhood and – in partnership with social service and community organizations – convert them into group homes for students who are homeless or in destructive home environments.

Both Edison and One Bright Ray partner with Congreso, a social service organization for Latinos. Delgado said that the key to preventing dropouts in the 9th grade – or any grade – is partnerships with social service and mental health agencies and other community groups.

“It would be wrong to say it’s 100 percent the School District’s fault,” said Delgado. “The problem isn’t going to be solved from 7 to 3.

“No student wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to be a dropout today.’”