HERALD COURIER Aug 15, 2004
– Freshman year didn’t go
well for Angel Hayes. She didn’t feel like she fit in at
High School, and she started refusing to go to class just two weeks in.
She racked up nearly 200 days of unexcused absences, was declared truant
by the courts and failed most of her classes. Like a growing number of
ninth-graders across the country, Angel never made it to her sophomore
year. The transition from middle school to high school has become one of
the most difficult adjustments for students, and statistics show that an
increasing number of them fail their freshman year, sometimes more than
A DIFFICULT TRANSITION During
the 2002-03 school year, 24 percent of Virginia High’s 225 freshmen
failed – one of the highest rates in
. The year before that, 24 percent of the high school’s 211 freshmen
were retained. Students like Angel struggle with social issues more than
academic ones, a problem that educators say happens all too often. "I
went to high school, and it seemed like everything got worse," said
Angel, now 17. "If you don’t fit in, you’re not accepted. If they
don’t like the way you look, they tell you that you need to go change
your clothes. I wouldn’t go because of all the kids." Nationally,
the rate at which ninth-grade students don’t reach 10th grade has
tripled in the past 30 years, according to a
classes nationwide had nearly 12 percent fewer students than the freshman
classes before them, meaning that students either dropped out, transferred
to private or home schools or, more likely, repeated their freshman year,
according to the study. It cited the ninth-grade transition as the area
with the "largest leak in the education pipeline." If students
don’t pass ninth grade, the odds of their persisting to graduation
decrease by up to 80 percent, according to Walt Haney, the Boston College
professor who piloted the study, "The Education Pipeline in the
United States: 1970-2000." "The single biggest predictor of kids
dropping out ... is whether they’re overage for their grade," he
said. "When they’re held back repeatedly, they’re overage."
Each school system has varying requirements as to when freshmen will be
considered sophomores, which makes it difficult to compare retention
statistics. Still, local school leaders echoed similar reasons for
WHY FRESHMEN DON’T SUCCEED
Problems often begin in middle school, where students aren’t held
accountable for material they need to succeed in high school, said Ina
Danko, Virginia High’s principal. Students don’t achieve standard
skill levels in areas like math and English, which leads to an even more
difficult high school adjustment. "There’s a point when you pass
them on to high school whether they passed or not," she said. But
retaining students might hurt them more than passing them, said Gary
Ritchie, principal of
. Shifting blame to middle-school teachers doesn’t explain the problem
either because they easily could point to elementary school teachers, who
could point to students’ parents, Ritchie said. Curriculum problems and
student apathy seem more likely explanations, he said. "The blame
game is not new," Ritchie said. "This year, it appears our
school is going to be (state) accredited, so to lay too much blame on the
middle school is unfair." Problems with course structure might
contribute to transition difficulties, he said. Some middle school classes
don’t stress skills that high school classes require as basic, Ritchie
said. For example,
computer teachers have so much material to cover that they expect incoming
freshmen to know how to type well. But before this year,
teachers didn’t know the high school’s expectations. "There are
curriculum issues that are being addressed," Ritchie said. "At
the middle school level, there tends to be a good deal of student apathy,
which is more pressing than them being able to do the work." Annette
Acuff, a veteran Virginia High teacher, said some students lack the
maturity to handle the larger and more complex high school environment.
"It isn’t that they’re lacking in intelligence," she said.
"Sometimes it is, but for the most part it’s their lack of
commitment to the work."
CONTRADICTORY’ Contrary to
local educators’ beliefs, Haney, the Boston College professor,
attributed the high failure rate to principals forcing failing students
out of school to improve their schools’ standardized test scores.
"We’re not trying to make absolute claims of causality here, but
the research is abundantly clear," Haney said. "It’s
simple-minded – the test score accountability approach is leading some
to sacrifice children in order to make their schools appear better. It’s
totally contradictory to what responsible educators should be doing."
Changes in the structure of middle schools also have impacted students’
success, Haney said. In the past, junior high schools – now called
middle schools – were structured more like high schools whereas middle
schools today are set up more like elementary schools, which may provide
one explanation for a higher failure rate, he said.
STRUGGLING TO FIT IN Besides
all the academic issues, fitting in becomes a major focus for students,
and they put more effort toward that achievement than their schoolwork.
"All of these transitional issues every adolescent carries is with
them," said Linda Fore, assistant superintendent of the Bristol
Virginia School System. "If they don’t find a group of kids they
can identify with, it’s hard for some to stay on track
academically." For example, 17-year-old Cody Almany failed two
classes his freshman year, primarily because he was more worried about his
social standing than his academics.
felt overwhelmed by the number of students at Virginia High and lost
because he didn’t know where he fit in. "You feel like you’ve got
to do things to be seen," he said. "You feel like you need to be
popular. You put more time into other things than schoolwork." He
barely passed his freshman year but felt much more comfortable the next
year. He spent less time hanging out and more time studying. It paid off,
and he passed all his classes. "I didn’t realize it was going to be
as hard as it was," Cody said.
SOLUTIONS TO THE
schools have a lower percentage of
failing freshmen – just 3 percent during 2002-03. Administrators
attribute that to years of concerted effort at helping at-risk
ninth-graders. The school system requires its students to understand
specified objectives before passing them, and it begins preparing kids
during the eighth grade. Teachers essentially track students from the
moment they start school. "We try to watch out for certain groups of
ninth-graders," said Lee Brannon, supervisor of secondary education
for the county. "It’s a major emphasis. (The transition) is such a
big step for them."
school systems have made similar efforts. The Bristol Virginia School
Board doubled the size of its 2-year-old freshman transition program this
school system invites incoming at-risk freshmen to a summer program to
make them feel more comfortable with school. They also pair each freshman
with an adviser, and freshmen can receive tours of the school by
upperclassmen. "Ninth grade is a make or break year," said Linda
Fore, assistant superintendent of the Bristol Virginia School System.
ANGEL CROSSES HURDLE For
Angel, who failed her freshman year at Virginia High because she skipped
too much school, a high school diploma seemed unattainable, and she began
working toward her GED. She found out last Friday that she earned her GED
certificate. She’s the first in her family to do so. "I never
thought I’d be able to get my GED," she said. "Now that I am,
it’s surprising and exciting." Angel wants to get a good job, and
she’s debating going to college. The times when she used to lock herself
in the school bathroom or sleep for an entire day to avoid her freshman
year seem far away.
you agree with this article? EXPLAIN
WHY OR WHY NOT.
you feel that the same problems exist for students transitioning into
has your transition to college been like?
Describe obstacles you’ve had to overcome.
you feel that high school prepared you for college?