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Paying attention to 9th graders

Graduation rates keep climbing, but many students still founder in the first year of high school.

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

Philadelphia’s graduation rate continues to improve, yet only about two-thirds of students who start 9th grade in public schools get a diploma four years later.

As the Notebook does its eighth annual edition focusing on the city’s dropout crisis, this is both encouraging and sobering news.

Encouraging because the gains are slow and steady, which makes it more likely that they are real, said Ruth Curran Neild, lead author of Unfulfilled Promise, the 2006 report that first offered hard data and highlighted the depth of the problem in Philadelphia.

But sobering because there are entrenched issues that the city’s educational leaders have yet to conquer. One of those is 9th grade, still where most dropouts run aground.

Stories in this issue illustrate this problem. District high school principals talk about difficulties they face. We visit an alternative school where those who fell behind are trying to catch up, and two turnaround charter high schools that rely heavily on strict discipline and “meeting kids where they are.” Often, that means on a 4th-grade reading level.

Students report obstacles to successfully completing 9th grade such as bullying and fights, but also a constant churn of teachers and the inability to get academic help when they need it.

Ninth graders need more adults per student, the most expert teachers, and an array of social services, Neild said. But in the traditional high school, that rarely happens.

“It’s expensive,” said Neild, now with the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Philadelphia, she said, has been adept at piloting promising programs but then letting them wither.

And with stricter academic requirements imminent – Keystone subject-matter exams soon required for graduation and the Common Core standards that will ratchet up instruction – finding the money and the will to help students in high-poverty neighborhoods will become even more important.

Project U-Turn is funding a rigorous follow-up study to Unfulfilled Promise, investigating what accounts for the increase in graduation rates – providing more detail on which schools and student subgroups are driving the improvement – and also tracking students’ post-secondary outcomes. The report is expected in early 2014.