‘We need to double down’: After a surge in ninth graders held back, schools step up support

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When high schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia opened their doors last fall, many more freshmen than usual walked in.

The main reason? Many ninth graders didn’t earn enough course credits to move on to 10th grade last year, officials say. While the district has seen its freshman class hover between 15,300 and 15,600 in recent years, this year’s class numbered more than 16,800.

“We understand, with that increase we saw in terms of the number of students who were not successful in terms of ninth grade promotion, that we need to double down on our efforts to get them on track,” said T. Nakia Towns, the district’s deputy superintendent. “It’s our highest priority.” 

Many districts across the country have seen a similar spike in their freshmen class this school year. While some expected a bigger class because of higher birth rates — along with some continued pandemic-related school mobility — many school officials say the big driver is the larger-than-usual share of ninth graders who were held back.

Thirteen states, including Georgia, saw at least a 5% increase in their ninth grade class this past fall, according to data across 34 states provided by Burbio, a private company tracking school enrollment. The freshman class shot up by 10% or more in Arkansas, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

Coupled with other state data showing more ninth graders are off-track to graduate in four years, the data raise questions about whether schools will be able to help this larger group of struggling ninth graders catch up. Already, some school districts are pouring money and staff into new efforts to get these students back on track.

“If we don’t do something to intervene right now, and with urgency, we could see that play out three years later in ways that would not be good for kids and for families,” Towns said. “We’re determined not to let that happen.”

That scenario is playing out in Fort Worth schools in Texas, where about 990 of 7,300 freshmen were repeating the grade this past fall. Those students pushed ninth grade enrollment beyond where it’s been in recent years — typically between 6,300 and 7,000 students.

To respond, the district added two required reading classes for struggling ninth graders that offer extra time to practice foundational skills students missed out on in middle school during the pandemic.

Fort Worth also placed a “freshman success” coach at each of its high schools, part of a new initiative funded with federal COVID relief dollars. The 23 coaches, along with teachers, pay particularly close attention to ninth graders’ academics, attendance, and emotional well-being, and work intensively with a smaller group of students who need it most.

Marcey Sorensen, the district’s chief academic officer, says staffers are looking for warning signs earlier and intervening sooner. If a ninth grader fails a class in the first semester, they’re targeted for credit recovery in the second semester, instead of over the summer. The thinking is rooted in research that has shown ninth graders who fail even one core class are much less likely to graduate within four years.

“That feels a lot like being a warm demander,” Sorensen said. “It’s when there is an adult that is connected to a child to say: ‘You have to be on Edgenuity’ or ‘You have to go to credit recovery,’ or ‘I’m checking and monitoring your attendance and it is at this percentage,’ or ‘I’m taking you to the counselor.’”

So far this year, just over a quarter of the freshmen who were repeating the grade have moved up to 10th grade, or some 280 students.

Gwinnett County is trying to take a more proactive approach, too. For example, ninth graders who failed a core class in their first semester were assigned a “power hour” class in January so they could work on making up that half-credit. The district is also offering 30 minutes a day of intensive tutoring to ninth graders — math and science are the big needs — and paying teachers extra to work with students after school and on Saturdays.

The idea is “stopping in the middle of the year and saying: ‘Let’s actually remediate right now,’” Towns said, “instead of waiting until the end and digging a bigger hole for kids to get out of.”

State data show the district’s freshman class dipped by some 570 students this spring, after some ninth graders successfully moved up to 10th grade.

In Allentown, Pennsylvania, schools started with 450 more freshmen than the prior year, about 300 of whom were repeat ninth graders.

This year, the district added more credit recovery classes staffed by teachers during the school day and after school. Officials also revamped the summer bridge program that prepares rising ninth graders for high school. In the past, the program had been shorter and poorly attended, but this year the district lengthened it and saw a big increase in participation. Officials plan to run it again this summer.

“We knew the needs that we were going to get,” said Brandy Sawyer, who oversees secondary education for the district. “It was a big transition. These kids weren’t in school for a full year since fifth grade and here they are, ninth graders.”

So far, the district has seen 55 repeat ninth graders move up to 10th grade — more than four times the number who moved up last year.

Houston ISD in Texas is offering more vacation “boot camps” to struggling ninth graders. In the past, the district paid teachers to offer that extra help only at select schools, but all schools could offer the program this year. 

Principal Orlando Reyna, who heads Austin High School, says that strategy prevents students from getting bogged down by make-up classes. 

“Those credit recovery boot camps are a way to keep our students on track,” Reyna said. “We want to be able to keep their schedules as open as possible to be able to serve them better.”

That support comes as the district enrolled 17,700 ninth graders this past fall, up from 15,000 to 16,300 in recent years. Connie Smith, who oversees high school curriculum for the district, estimates that around 12% of those students were repeating the grade, often after they missed class to work or because they got sick or exposed to COVID. The district also saw an uptick in ninth graders due to the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America and refugees from Haiti, who have their own particular needs.

The district has been urging students to earn credits over the summer to build “cushion” into their schedules later if they have to retake a class.

“I’m feeling hopeful,” Smith said. “They are moving in the right direction.”

Kalyn Belsha is a national education reporter based in Chicago. Contact her at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.