Taking sink or swim out of 9th grade

Times Staff Writer

As Jessica McClain, 14, stood in line to get her student ID picture taken on her first official day as a Muir High School student, she was a churning mix of anticipation and anxiety.

“The campus is huge,” a wide-eyed McClain said as she looked at hundreds of freshmen lined up in the school’s cavernous gymnasium. “I am excited, but I’m nervous. New school. Bigger school. Bigger people.”

But for McClain, freshman year will be a more intimate experience than for earlier generations. Ninth grade is crucial to a student’s eventual academic success, so secondary schools across the nation, including Pasadena’s Muir High, are increasingly sheltering their freshmen in small learning communities or sometimes on separate campuses.

“We really wanted to make sure our freshmen have a strong, solid foundation and are able to bond with the school,” said Edwin Diaz, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District. “If they don’t connect well in ninth grade, they tend to disappear in 10th. A high percentage drop out.”

In recent years, taking a cue from universities, high schools have tried various strategies for first-year students, including assigning them mentors, creating summer programs to ease their transitions and giving them extra time to acclimate to life on campus. But now, educators are going further, giving the newcomers their own learning environments.


Freshman year can be a trying time. Teens are at a difficult age, on the bridge between childhood and young adulthood. Relationships are changing, bodies are maturing, and hormones are in overdrive. Parents sometimes become less involved in overseeing homework just as teens are being given greater responsibility in school. And they are leaving middle schools for high schools that can be as large as colleges and include students old enough to vote.

All this creates turmoil. Freshmen are more likely than upperclassmen to fail a class or be suspended. More than 30% of high school students quit before graduation, and in most states the greatest share of that loss occurs in ninth grade, according to a 2006 study by the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in Bethesda, Md.

In California, for instance, there were 468,465 high school seniors last school year, a drop of more than 81,000 since the class entered ninth grade in 2004, according to the state Department of Education.

The idea that a few poor grades in freshman year are no real problem is gone. Grades during freshman year are more predictive of whether a student will drop out than other factors, including poverty and standardized test scores, said Elaine M. Allensworth, co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Adults may “see students with one or two Fs, they think no big deal, they’ve got four years to make it up,” she said. “We can’t wait till students are older to start trying to help them, because then it’s going to be too late. It’s the freshman year that sets the stage for the rest of high school.”

A study released last week found that if students don’t start taking college-prep requirements in freshman year, they are less likely to meet the requirements for admission to California’s public universities.

“The chances of catching up are greatly reduced if you haven’t gotten off to a strong start as a freshman,” said Neal Finkelstein, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at WestEd, a San Francisco-based national nonprofit research agency.

Freshmen have their own campuses in some communities, including Yucaipa in San Bernardino County; San Antonio, Texas; Huntsville, Ala.; and West Fargo, N.D.

At the Yucaipa High School 9th Grade Campus, Principal Eric Vreeman said isolating the 850 freshmen helps them avoid pressure from older students and allows the staff of two administrators, two counselors and 40 teachers to focus on a single age group.

“It’s a smaller, safer environment,” he said.

The San Leandro Unified School District, in the Bay Area, is using $38 million in bond money to build a ninth-grade school a block and a half from its high school. The new school is scheduled to open in 2010.

Supt. Christine Lim said freshmen in her district go from middle schools that house about 1,000 students to a high school more than twice as large.

“You lose that personal touch,” she said.

But most districts do not have the luxury of building new schools, so they are creating small learning communities, in which groups of freshmen share a set of teachers and are often housed in a separate part of the campus. In most cases, freshmen in such learning groups mingle with upperclassmen in some of their courses, including electives, as well as extracurricular activities.

Logan High School in Union City, Calif., started “freshman families” last year. The ninth-grade class of about 1,000 was broken into groups of up to 100 students, all of whom take classes with the same English, math, biology and life-skills teachers. Other classes and electives are taken among the school’s 4,000 students.

“They get to know their teachers a little better, they get to know other kids in class a little better,” said Rick La Plante, spokesman for the New Haven Unified School District, which includes Union City.

At Muir in Pasadena, 400 freshmen, divided into two groups within a single academy, will be housed in the school’s D wing.

“It’s kind of important that we cocoon these students,” said Jennifer Smith, a Muir assistant principal in charge of the freshman academy.

The academy will have a 20 to 1 ratio of students to teachers. As at Logan, students will be taught by a separate set of teachers. District officials hope that students will form relationships with teachers, who will be alert to early signs of trouble, such as attendance problems or slipping grades.

“That’s the atmosphere we are trying to create here, where there’s someone who knows you personally,” said Principal Sheryl Orange. “Our goal and our intent is every child who walks in today will graduate in four years.”

The freshman program is part of an ambitious restructuring plan for Muir, where three in 10 students drop out.

“If we can give them extra attention, hopefully they will understand what they need to do to be successful at high school and college,” said freshman guidance counselor Nancy Gonzalez-Heusser “Hopefully, they will connect to an adult. That type of connection can make a difference. I’m hoping I can be that connection.”

The week before school started, Muir junior Jennifer Jones, 16, attended a freshman academy orientation to recruit new members for the pep squad. Jennifer, wearing layered tank tops and hair ribbons in the Muir Mustangs’ blue and gold, said she wished the academy had been around for her class.

The transition to high school “was hard,” she said. “The work gets a lot harder, and a lot more. You have to start taking things a lot more seriously.”