Isolating 9th Graders

Separate schools ease the academic and social transition for high school-bound students by Jennifer Newton Reents

Entering ninth grade can be one of the most emotionally difficult, most academically challenging times in children’s lives. Along with the self-esteem issues, developmental changes and environmental shakeup faced by the young adolescents, school districts risk watching their 9th graders fall through the cracks without proper transitional programs in place.


In fact, researchers have identified 9th grade as the most critical point to intervene and prevent students from losing motivation, failing and dropping out of school.

Some school districts across the country are finding the best way to address this need is by creating 9th-grade academies or centers and schools within schools. These rather new entities are designed to smooth the transition to high school and give students the attention they need during this critical time.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 128 9th-grade-only schools were operating during the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent year of published data.

Seeing Results

The 53,000-student Aldine Independent School District in Houston operates four 9th-grade centers. The district decided to open them in 1998 and 1999 to essentially keep freshmen from getting lost in the corridors and classrooms of already massive high schools, currently ranging in size from 1,900 to 2,300 10th- through 12th-grade students.

By providing them with their own campus, students become better acquainted with the rigors of a high school curriculum and mature in the process, says Nadine Kujawa, Aldine’s superintendent.

“Our research found that we have more 9th graders drop out of school because they get lost in a large high school setting and have less attention paid to them as individuals,” she says.

Kujawa considers the 9th-grade centers a success already. “Our dropout rate at the 9th-grade level has decreased dramatically and our attendance rate has increased,” she says. “More students are earning credit and are classified as 10th graders when they go to the high school. Our test scores have risen and behavior is improved.”

Kujawa also thinks the isolation of this pivotal grade is helping to raise student achievement. From 1996 to 2001, the district earned a “recognized” rating from the Texas Education Agency—the second highest in the state’s system of accountability. The ratings are based on student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, dropout rates and attendance.

About 850 students attend each center in Aldine, which built new sites for each at a cost of $10 million apiece. The district also operates pre-kindergarten/kindergarten, grades 5 and 6 and grades 7 and 8 on their own campuses.

Other districts that operate 9th-grade centers report they too are seeing academic success along with overall declines in their dropout and disciplinary action rates.

Superintendent James Smith of the 44,000-student Alief Independent School District, also in Houston, says the need for his district’s two 9th-grade centers grew out of a desire to provide a strong academic foundation to prevent students from dropping out. They opened in 1998, adjacent to a high school with a connecting sidewalk. Each enrolls 900 students

“With a community concept and a smaller enrollment, special attention can be focused on particular groups,” Smith says. “Research shows 9th-graders have the largest failure rate and are at risk of dropping out when academic success is not experienced. Through individualization and learning teams, the failure and dropout rates are reduced.”

Students also develop a bond and a sense of belonging and teachers find it easier to identify those with special needs. More 9th graders are involved in activities than was the case when they were part of comprehensive secondary schools.

Transition programs for 9th graders also have a positive effect on preventing risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, sexual activity and crime, according to a 1990 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Research Support

Jay Hertzog, dean of education at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, and his research partner Lena Morgan, dean of instruction at Pensacola Junior College in Pensacola, Fla., have been studying student transition from middle school to high school, particularly from 8th to 9th grade, for seven years.

About four years ago, they completed a national study of more than 400 high schools and their sending middle schools. In addition, they conduct workshops for schools on devising transition programs.

“One of our recommendations from the research we have conducted is that schools develop a 9th-grade academy to ease the stress of transition,” Hertzog says. “Our belief is that this approach will provide 9th-grade students with ‘touchstones’ to help them acclimate to their new surroundings and a faculty that is transitional in nature and dedicated to teaching 9th-grade students.”

In school systems with full-blown transition programs, the researchers found the 9th-grade transition programs had a significant impact on the number of student dropouts—an 8 percent dropout rate at schools with such a program versus a 24 percent rate at those without.

“In addition, when we looked at 9th-grade retention rates—students who do not accumulate enough credits to move to 10th grade—we found that those schools that had a transition program in place had fewer students who were retained in grade,” Hertzog says.

Individual Attention

Success for students entering 9th grade is crucial to keeping them in school, Hertzog says.

“We also did a study, using the Harter Adolescent Self-Perception Inventory, and found that out of 10 domains, students going from grade 8 (spring) to grade 9 (fall) had a statistically significant drop in the following areas: physical appearance; job competence; romantic appeal; behavioral conduct; and here’s the scary one, global self-worth,” he says. “The only domain in which there was a statistically significant increase from grade 8 to grade 9 was close friendships. The 9th-grade students stayed close to each other. They found comfort in those like them.”

Hertzog says in a related study, a colleague from Wisconsin, Steven Lozeau, examined students’ self-perception using the Harter Inventory from the beginning of grade eight (fall) to the end of grade eight (spring) and found no significant difference.

Lozeau’s study continued through spring of 9th grade and found that males had the lowest self-perception of their physical appearance at that point, girls had their lowest self-perception of their global self-worth in spring of 9th grade year; and while romantic appeal increased, self-perception of romantic appeal decreased.

While some districts choose to isolate grades at different levels, Herzog believes it is most crucial to isolate 9th graders.

“A quote from one of the schools with whom we have consulted—Whitefish Bay Schools in Whitefish Bay, Wis.—pretty much sums it up this way: ‘The greatest differences in the K-12 organizational culture exists in the gap between middle school and high school. Preschool feels like kindergarten; 5th grade feels like 6th grade; the senior year of high school is similar to the college freshman year; but 8th grade is middle school (and) is nothing like 9th grade in high school,’” Hertzog says.

Room for Change

While some districts open 9th-grade centers to improve academic success, others fall upon them because they simply have run out of room at one or more schools.

The Cache County School District in North Logan, Utah, once had two 9th-grade centers that remained open for five years because of an enrollment bulge in the 6th through 9th grade population. The centers later became 8th-9th grade centers for financial reasons.

But it was a strong project while it lasted, says Mike Liechty, the district’s director of applied technology, who was the principal of the two centers when they were open between 1993 and 1999.

The rural Cache County district, with its 13,200 students in northern Utah, housed about 550 students at each site.

“We needed to build new buildings on a limited budget,” Liechty says. “The decision was to build only two new buildings and house grades six through eight in them. The 9th grade would remain in the older (junior high) buildings that had large sports areas for football, auditoriums, shop areas, etc.”

The Cache County school board did not want to build a facility for just one grade. “The idea was to take the programs developed in the 9th-grade schools and continue them in a combined 8/9 school,” Liechty says.

The Cache County district now has 12 elementary schools, four 6th/7th-grade middle schools, two 8th/9th-grade middle schools and two high schools.

About a year ago in a suburb of Rochester, the Rush-Henrietta Central School District renovated a former junior high school building that was being used for office space into the Rush-Henrietta Ninth Grade Academy.

Like some of these districts, Rush-Henrietta was faced with a space crunch at its high school.

“Each class size was about 400,” says Kenneth Graham, superintendent of the 6,000-student district. “This was too much to handle in one building. Rather than open a new high school, the decision was made to break off the 9th grade into a separate facility.”

During the planning process for the academy, the district soon began striving to create an environment that addresses the unique needs of 9th graders, Graham says. The Ninth Grade Academy, with its 400 students, is located on its own campus about a half-mile from the senior high school.

The 9th-grade center in the Downingtown, Pa., Area School District is considered a temporary solution to overcrowding. But it has been a successful temporary solution for the last four years. Downingtown Superintendent Dan Collins says the center, with its 750 students, was intended to only be open for two years while the district built a second high school slated to open this fall.

“Our construction plans have not moved on a timely basis and the board decided that they did not want to have students and teachers in a building under construction. Thus our two-year construction plan has stretched to four years,” he says.

“The greatest benefit has been the ability to isolate ninth-grade students without the pressures of older students being placed upon them,” says Collins. “We had many parents express concern about the isolation prior to the opening of the building, but parents now rave about the program. I wish we could maintain it next year, but politically that is not possible. The greatest factor in making it work is that we have an excellent principal in the building who was able to unite the staff.”

Selling the Program

The development of a 9th-grade center, however, is only one aspect of transition from middle school to high school, says Slippery Rock University’s Hertzog,

“School districts need to develop a program that begins in the fall of the 8th-grade year and continues through until at least the spring of the 9th-grade year. Part of this process is the development of the 9th-grade center,” he says.

When developing a transition program between middle school and high school, a school district needs to find a dedicated faculty that is willing to teach only 9th graders. The teachers should look at assignments and agree on policies and procedures for turning in assignments, taking tests, etc. This, Hertzog says, will provide the 9th-grade student with some concrete guidelines across the curriculum and help them stay organized.

Aldine’s Kujawa says to start a 9th-grade program, school districts must first sell the notion to parents. “It is a different concept and you have to be prepared to address their concerns about splitting up the school into different units. [Some may ask], ‘Will my child still be in the symphonic band or on the drill team at the high school?’” she says.

Rush-Henrietta’s Graham says for a successful program, the district administration must treat the 9th-grade center as equal in importance to the senior high school, not as an extension program. He also recommends orientation programs be run at middle schools by the administrators of the 9th-grade center in early spring to prepare and excite 8th graders about coming to the school.

In Downingtown, Pa., many parents and staff have become so enthused about the value of the 9th-grade center that they are disappointed in its imminent closing. Tony Watson, principal of the district’s 9th-grade center has heard from plenty of supporters.

“The 9th-grade center has provided students a time to bond with each other. We are fed from two middle schools before going up to the high school,” says Watson. “The smaller setting at the NGC compared to the high school—there are 750 students at the NGC and 2,000 students at the high school—allows students to get to know each other better. The students realize that they all are equal and don't have to compete with the upperclassmen for participation in afterschool activities, clubs, the school play, the yearbook club, etc., or for popularity.

“Also, the students get the opportunity to be around other students who share the same basic interests, concerns, issues, problems and joys of life that they are experiencing. Ninth graders are a unique group of individuals who are searching for their own identity. They are stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood,” Watson says.

While the Downingtown 9th graders will move to the high school in the fall, there may be new plans in the works for the center.

“Given our rapid growth, I believe we will need to use it to house 6th-grade students,” says Collins, the Downingtown superintendent. “We have talked about creating a 6th-grade center because both of our new middle schools are beyond capacity already.”

Location, Location, Location

Superintendents whose districts operate isolated 9th-grade programs suggest the centers be located as close as possible to the high school site, if not within a self-contained portion of the same building to cut down on costs.

Hertzog points to the advantages of an overlapping facility. “By having the center in the high school, though, common areas such as the library, cafeteria, co-curriculars, etc., provide times for 9th-grade students to mix with upperclassmen. Those who teach in the center should be aware of the traits of 14-year-old students. They are different than 18-year-olds.”

The siting of a 9th-grade center brings challenges.

Alief’s Smith says the proximity to the high school allows 9th-graders to participate in marching band, athletics and other extracurriculars.

“Advanced students have the opportunity to participate in classes only offered on the main campus, thus reducing replication and cost,” Smith says. “Students in marching band, drill team and JV/varsity athletics can participate in the activity on the main campus. If the programs were duplicated on the 9th-grade campus, the cost would be greater.”

Graham says the Rush-Henrietta district faces logistical issues in shuttling students between the Ninth Grade Academy and the high school for electives and music lessons.

Operating an isolated grade site is more costly than simply sending all 9th graders to high school.

For example, Alief’s 9th-grade center operates on a $4 million budget and the Downingtown Area School District’s 9th-grade center spends $4.8 million a year. Some districts, like Rush-Henrietta, do not budget their schools individually.

“There are additional personnel costs for principal, librarian, nurse [and] duplicate materials that may be able to be shared if housed in the same building,” Rush-Herietta’s Graham says.

The Right Staff

The most challenging issue is to find faculty members interested in teaching only 9th-grade students.

“Faculty tend to develop a belief that longevity in the school means fewer 9th-grade classes,” Hertzog says.

When it comes to hiring teachers for an isolated center, others recommend seeking out staff who want to work with 9th graders and to hire counselors and assistant principals well versed in the unique characteristics of this age group. Staff also must be able to encourage parental support and involvement, which sometimes fades after the elementary and middle school years.

“Just developing a ninth-grade center isn't the answer,” cautions Hertzog. “There must be a combination of the center plus the establishment of a well-designed transition program based on the needs of the students, not the adults.”

The transition to high school is a process, not an event, he adds, and the need for a 9th-grade center “more than screams for acceptance and development along with a well-designed, student-centered transition program.”

Jennifer Reents is a free-lance writer and editor in Wichita, Kan. E-mail: jreents@kscable.com