This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
David Jones, Amanda Strickland, Christine Wu and Kayla Milton – all 11th graders at South Philadelphia High School – have ambitious plans for after graduation.
Jones, 17, will opt for culinary school – he’s a whiz at pastry. Strickland and Wu, both 17, want careers in the health field, Strickland as a nurse, Wu as a surgeon.
Even in high school, Milton, 18, is gaining experience in the graphic arts field.
Similar optimism is apparent at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia. There, 11th graders Unique Stephens, 16, and Michael Taylor, 18, both plan to attend college. Stephens plans to study civil engineering, while Taylor wants to be a lawyer.
All these students – and scores of their peers – are among the first cohort of young people to benefit from having started their high school journey in their school’s ninth-grade academy, an ambitious and promising District program now established in all 21 neighborhood high schools.
Education researchers describe the transition into ninth grade as the riskiest of years for students in urban districts, with as many as 40 percent of students failing to get promoted from ninth to tenth grade on time. That setback puts those young people in grave jeopardy for dropping out. Fewer than 20 percent of students who fall behind make up ground and earn diplomas, according to MDRC, a national education research group.
The District’s approach is to give ninth graders their own wing or corridor of the high school to limit contact with upperclass students during the school day. An assistant principal for the ninth-grade academy is in place at every high school, and a team of core-subject teachers, a career/college counselor, and a climate manager coordinate efforts to boost student achievement, attendance and behavior.
Aja Carpenter, director of special projects in the office of academic support, oversees the initiative, now in its third year. The transition from middle school is rough on students, Carpenter said. “It’s a challenge for them, and it can be a challenge for the adults.”
Preliminary data shared by the District for the first cohort of students in the ninth-grade academies show positive trends both in attendance (students attending 95 percent or more) and in the number of students with zero suspensions in their 9th, 10th and 11th grade years.
The ninth-grade academy at South Philadelphia High School, commonly referred to as Southern, is improving school climate, attendance and prospects for ontime graduation, said Principal Kimlime Chek-Taylor.
Students arriving at Southern, like students everywhere, must learn the ropes – how to navigate a large building, how to find the next class. “Here, they can get lost,” Chek- Taylor said.
But many young people at Southern have issues far more complex to deal with, “a lot of barriers,” Chek-Taylor said. “We say that they have grown-up problems, and they are 13, 14, 15 years old.”
The task of the ninth-grade team is to figure out why the child is not focusing on schoolwork, or cutting class, or not showing up.
The school’s overall performance on the School Progress Report jumped five points the year after the start of the ninth-grade academy. Average daily attendance is about 87 percent, Chek-Taylor said.
It’s all about relationships
Antonio Anderson, the ninth grade climate manager, said parents have grown to trust him and the school, as have students. He calls them his babies.
“Parents have my cell phone number. They call me, text me, contact me because we’ve had a relationship now for three years, and they know we have these students’ best interests at heart,” Anderson said.
“Our students need more of us than just as educators. They need us to be counselors, therapists, friends, big brothers, big sisters,” he said.
Two developments have emerged aimed at enhancing the prospects of students in the District’s neighborhood high schools. First, the District plans to replicate key components of the ninth grade academy model in the upper grades, including more attention to academic planning to ensure on-time graduation.
Second, most high schools redesigned classes into the so-called A-B block schedule at the start of this past school year. Classes now are 90 minutes long, meet every second day and continue across the school year, not just one semester.
The result is that many students can acquire eight, not five, credits freshman year. The change means students can amass enough credits for graduation sooner, freeing up blocks of time later in high school for internships, independent study or work.
It also means students who falter have a cushion of sorts, giving them time to make up missing credits and graduate in four years.
So what do students think?
Starting ninth grade at Southern “was scary,” said Strickland, recalling her experience of two-plus years ago. “The school was really big. I wasn’t used to a school like that. The teachers were pretty nice, but the kids scared me.”
When she has been absent, her teachers have noticed, she said. “They ask me what’s wrong, can they help me. I think that’s really good that they notice. A lot of kids have a lot of stuff going on at home.”
Milton recalled numerous, fun group activities from ninth grade and said she has been involved in extracurriculars ever since. Building a sense of community is one of the goals of this focus on ninth graders, the idea being it’ll serve the young people through their entire four years.
Students at Sayre also praised the academy and their teachers.
Ninth grader Kai Coleman, 14, said Sayre “is a pretty lovely school.” She aims to be an orthopedist in the Army.
Zanai Hicks, 15, who wants to be a journalist, said ninth grade has been “good so far.”
“The teachers have helped me open up my mind to new ideas and possibilities to get me where I want to be in life,” she said.
Tyron Lightford, 16, said he liked how the ninth-grade corridor is “cut off” from the other grades. “You feel secure because it’s just your grade and people you know. You don’t have to be scared of walking by someone you don’t know,” he said.
Lightford, who wants to study art, designed this year’s ninth grade T-shirts.
Also at Sayre, Unique Stephens, an 11th grader who wants to study civil engineering, recalled having “to get used to all the different people. We were all mixed in, and we became a family. We did make that bond in ninth grade and we felt more comfortable” entering 10th.
Michael Taylor, also in 11th grade, recalled taking numerous field trips to colleges and technical schools during the ninth-grade year and doing hands-on projects. “It shaped us into better people,” said Taylor, the one set on being a lawyer.
Taylor is among those who return to the ninth-grade wing to advise this year’s class “how to better transition into the higher grades… We know they can be very confrontational so we show them other ways to communicate. And we build that relationship, so they can come talk to us when they need to.”
Alia Dickerson, principal for the ninth grade at Sayre, said building connections with students and with their at-home providers is key.
“Overall, we’ve struggled with attendance,” Dickerson said. “But each of our students has their own individual story, individual needs that cause them not to be here. That’s why we try to form that relationship with the parents and communicate with them and with the students. If I’m not reaching out, one of my teachers is
Dickerson described her staff as being “warm demanders.”
“They have this warmth about them,” she said, “but they also have high expectations of their students.”
Renee Wright, emotional support teacher in her first year with the academy, endorsed the approach as creating a safe harbor for the young people in their first year of high school.
“It’s nice,” she said. “They know that when they’re here, they’re safe. They know they are loved.”