This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Jared Banks, 15, first set foot in Northeast High School, he had no idea what to expect.
Neither did Amani Harris, also 15.
What they got was a warm-hearted welcome and layers of support and supervision from the teachers and staff at the school’s 9th-grade academy. The adults, in fact, knew a lot about the newcomers — counselors had conferred with their middle-school counterparts to learn about the strengths and needs of the rising 8th graders.
“I was worried about the connections I would have with teachers,” Harris said. Rumor had it, she recalled, that “teachers here were tough, rough.” So she was surprised that “teachers were open with us and wanted to get to know us.”
Teachers work to boost students’ efforts, Banks said. One of them told him, “I want you on the same road to success I went on. I don’t want any of you left behind,” he said. “The teachers, everyone in the administration. They’re here to help us succeed and not fall back.”
Northeast has run its 9th-grade academy for several years. Since September 2016, 9th-grade academies have operated in all District neighborhood high schools. Each has at least one assistant principal supervising the effort. Each has a counselor. Each has a core team of teachers.
It’s an approach that shows promise for improving academics, attendance, and behavior, according to the District, and in the long run, increasing the odds that students will graduate high school in four years and reducing the number who drop out,.
“The data very strongly and convincingly tell us that if a kid fails one or more classes 9th-grade year, the rates of dropout and all those other things go through the roof,” said Omar Crowder, one of two assistant principals supervising 9th graders at Northeast.
Last fall, four high schools – South Philadelphia, Sayre, Kensington and Frankford – received additional support for 9th grade, including a college and career awareness coordinator, a school climate manager, and extra money for field trips and other incentives. Next fall, three more schools – Northeast, George Washington and Penn Treaty – will get that extra support.
For the District, the focus even makes budgetary sense. Remedial programs to help students catch up and eventually attain their diplomas are far more costly, said Cheryl Logan, the District’s chief academic officer. “We are trying to get our kids through 9th grade successfully the first time, as opposed to doubling and tripling our spend and prolonging their time in high school because they weren’t successful the first time.”
This summer, for a second year, many of the schools will run a four-week program called Bridge to introduce incoming 9th graders to high school life. That’s how Banks learned the ropes. Harris attended 9th-grade orientation later in the summer. Both learned about time management and study skills.
Providing a personal touch
Northeast High on Cottman Avenue is big, with a maze of hallways, floors, and wings that accommodate 3,700 students, including 1,200 freshmen. About half of them are in the academy. The others are enrolled in one of several specialized small learning communities at the school.
“We have a saying: As goes 9th grade, so goes the school,” said Byron Ryan, who is co-assistant principal with Crowder.
Freshmen have their own entrance, and their classes are clustered in one wing. All students are issued ID cards that they swipe as they enter the school and again at lunch. Teachers alert the office if a student entered the school in the morning but failed to arrive, say, at a third-period class. The system means that “you can’t hide,” as one staffer put it.
Students with attendance issues also get extra attention. Parents get phone calls and letters alerting them to truancy issues.
A student who has lost ground can attend credit recovery sessions, or make up missed work, or revise work previously submitted. The goal, said Crowder, “is to give them an opportunity to recover from the F or from the brink of failing to get them back on track.”
“We wave that little flag,” said Ryan. “We tell parents your child still needs you to stay on them, give them that extra push, if not for the rest of their high school experience, then definitely now, because that transition to high school, the freedom children are faced with … not every child is ready for that.”
If a student is absent too many days, he said, “Sometimes we’re like private eyes. We ask our students, ’have you seen so-and-so?’ Nine times out of 10, they’ll give us information.”
Northeast offers options to students of all grades who have left school and seek to return. A program called Education Options is open to any former student in the city, even adults. Attendees can earn up to three credits a trimester toward attaining a diploma.
Harris said, “A lot of our teachers try to keep us from even having a thought of wanting to drop out. They tell us about friends they had who dropped out and how it was a dumb decision.”
The results so far this year have been positive, with attendance in the academy at Northeast averaging 90-92 percent, higher than the school as a whole.
Learning the ‘ABCs’
South Philadelphia High School added the model in September 2016, and freshman attendance has improved by several percentage points, to about 85 percent, said Crystal Edwards, assistant principal for 9th grade.
With the startup of the academy, the focus is on what the academy team calls the ABCs — attendance, behavior, and credit attainment.
“We say five is the magic number,” Edwards said.
“To be considered a sophomore, you have to have five or more credits at the end of your freshman year. So that is one of our big pushes. We’re looking to make sure 100 percent of our students have five or more credits so we don’t have ‘fresh-mores’ like we have some this year.” Those are students repeating 9th-grade level courses while their peers have advanced.
Southern freshmen and their parents or guardians participated last fall in a commitment ceremony, where students — all dressed up — pledged to work hard to attain their diplomas in four years of high school.
The pledge caught parents by pleasant surprise, said Edwards, and had such a positive impact on students that the ceremony will be used in all neighborhood high schools next year.
It impressed Debra Flowers’ parents. “They were proud of me and they hope I keep that promise. I think I will if I push myself hard enough. Next year I hope to do good, do better,” said Flowers, 15.
Kimlime Chek-Taylor, South’s principal, said that building relationships between students and adults in the building is key. “It’s important that we know our students, know their background, know their story. We get buy-in from them. That’s why we have high attendance.”
Robin Roberts, a spokeswoman for the advocacy organization Parents United for Public Education, said she supported the assignment of an assistant principal to supervise the academy in each school.
“That happens in a lot of suburban schools,” she noted. And she said the District should do more to inform families about the program.
But she adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the initiative. With other District efforts, “there’s variable success and there’s manufactured success,” she said. “We need to make sure the information parents get is accurate and the 9th-grade academies are actually going to move the ball forward when it comes to education.”
Logan, of the District, said it’s a common-sense approach to guiding students through their first year of high school.
“We’ve allowed them some time to mature, realizing 9th graders are just big middle schoolers,” she said.
“There is a big chunk of adolescent growth and development that takes place during that transition year, and we have to tend to kids’ needs so they are ready to meet the academic demands of high school.”
Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.