A Difficult Transition



– Freshman year didn’t go well for Angel Hayes. She didn’t feel like she fit in at Virginia 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 once.

During the 2002-03 school year, 24 percent of Virginia High’s 225 freshmen failed – one of the highest rates in Southwest Virginia . 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 Boston College study.

Sophomore 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 freshmen failures.

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 Virginia Middle School . 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, Virginia High School computer teachers have so much material to cover that they expect incoming freshmen to know how to type well. But before this year, Virginia Middle School 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."

‘TOTALLY 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.

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.


He 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 PROBLEM Washington County 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."


Other school systems have made similar efforts. The Bristol Virginia School Board doubled the size of its 2-year-old freshman transition program this year. The Bristol Tennessee 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.

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.


  1. Do you agree with this article?  EXPLAIN WHY OR WHY NOT.
  2. Do you feel that the same problems exist for students transitioning into college?
  3. What has your transition to college been like?  Describe obstacles you’ve had to overcome.
  4. Do you feel that high school prepared you for college?  Explain.