BUCKSPORT, Maine — The ninth-grade world is one of the most difficult for students to navigate, perhaps more than any other year.
“Ninth grade is considered a make-it-or-break-it year,” said Angie Jerabek, a grant coordinator at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota. Jerabek also works for the Search Institute, a nonprofit group focused on educational innovation.
Ninth-graders are five times more likely to fail a class than those same students were a year before in eighth grade, Jerabek said.
Jerabek visited Bucksport High School this week as part of the review process for a four-year, $100,000-per-year U.S. Department of Education grant the school won to apply some specific strategies to help keep ninth-graders on track. Bucksport was one of four schools nationwide to win the BARR grants — Building Assets, Reducing Risks. Sanford High School also won a grant, as did schools in Minnesota and California.
Early studies of these strategies strongly suggest that keeping an eye on ninth-graders and offering them a helping hand — and a firm push at times — makes a big difference in grades and, ultimately, graduation rates.
At Bucksport, Maryanne Mytar is half-time grant coordinator and half-time English teacher who has helped implement the new strategies. She echoed Jerabek’s take on that first year in high school.
“It’s when kids get lost and they kind of accumulate problems,” she said. “They dig a hole for themselves they sometimes can’t get out of.”
The strategies now in place at Bucksport High School break down walls between teachers and staff so if a student shows signs of falling behind academically, getting lost socially or simply missing out on activities that might enrich his or her life, the adults notice.
This year, the freshman class of 60 is divided into groups of 15, with a teacher acting as an advisor for each group. Mytar, who does not teach any freshman classes, is an adviser and keeps tabs on the ninth-graders in her charge.
The message students get, she said, is, “Somebody’s watching me, somebody cares about me, somebody doesn’t want me to fail.”
Each day, the adviser meets with all the ninth-grade teachers, the guidance counselor, principal and school social worker in a planning period set aside for that purpose. The grant funding is applied to instructional costs so teachers have the extra time.
A spreadsheet documenting each student’s progress is projected onto a screen, Mytar said of the daily meetings, so grades, attendance and behavior problems can be viewed. There also is a subjective component to this group approach. If one teacher mentions that a student has been late to class three days in a row, that observation may prompt another teacher to recall other red flags.
If a ninth-grader seems isolated in the school community, is withdrawn or perhaps looking tired, an adviser might suggest the student play a sport or join a club, or give advice on how to make friends.
But it’s not all hand-holding and pats on the back, both Mytar and Jerabek say.
“The rigor of freshman year at Bucksport High School hasn’t changed,” said Mytar.
The remedies that can be applied when grades drop, when homework assignments are missed, when absenteeism becomes a problem are several. A call to a parent is one step. An after-school study hall can be assigned — with parental permission.
Sometimes, students don’t accept the help.
Mytar has heard, “Back off,” from some. She tells them, “You get to make the choice, but we’re going to be here.” And when they fall short of expectations, students are told, “Yes, you’re a kid and you screwed up and that’s what kids do. But the grown-ups are not going to give up on you.”
If more serious problems emerge with a student, he or she might be discussed at a weekly meeting that includes the school resource police officer, the assistant principal, both guidance counselors, the social worker and, often, someone from the community.
Jerabek said the strategies being used were developed from research by the late Peter Benson, who had been a member of the Search Institute. Benson and others argue that high school structure is based on the factory model rather than a more modern business model.
High school teachers tend to be in their individual “silos,” Jerabek said, focused on their content area and perhaps not enough on the individual students who also must succeed in other classes with other teachers.
Jerabek said a high school in Hemet, Calif., conducted a study of the ninth-grade intervention strategies, randomly assigning half of the freshman class and half of its teachers to the adviser and intervention system. The results were striking, she said, with those in the system scoring better grades, having better attendance and exhibiting fewer behavioral problems.
With this approach, both teachers said, the “fixes” that come with early intervention are smaller and less costly to implement.