State Seeks to Smooth High School Transition

Success in ninth grade is key to succeeding in the rest of high school, according to education experts. That's why the Raleigh, North Carolina, school system has set up "ninth grade academies" in all of its high schools. The academies function as schools within schools in helping young adolescents make the transition. Jessica Jones of member station WUNC reports.

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Ninth grade can be tough. For students starting high school, it can be a big transition both socially and academically. To help, some school districts have started what they call ninth-grade academies; these are schools within schools that offer more mentoring and academic support. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio paid a visit to an academy at Cary High School in Cary, North Carolina.

JESSICA JONES reporting:

School hasn't officially started yet at Cary High, but Assistant Principal Dee McKenzie has been spending a lot of time with students in the gym. He's in charge of freshman orientation.

Mr. DEE McKENZIE (Assistant Principal, Cary High School): OK! Now at this time introduce yourself, ask a question, go back and forth and then switch, swap and then go to a different person, OK? All right! And begin! Go!

JONES: McKenzie is directing 70 students like a traffic cop to get them to ask each other questions.

JONES: Basically the questions have to do with, `What is your favorite color?' `What type of food do you like to eat?' `What's your favorite rock star or, you know, musician?' different things like that. So it gets them intermingling (laughs).

JONES: These students will be mingling a lot this year. All 675 of Cary High's freshmen attend class in their own building called a freshmen academy. It's blocks away from the main campus. They have more counselors, smaller classes and more tutoring than older students. McKenzie says it all serves a purpose.

Mr. McKENZIE: The ninth-grade year is the toughest year, and it tends to be the year where a lot of students repeat. It tends to be the year where a lot of students drop out of school. So we're hoping that this will kind of help decrease that.

JONES: And McKenzie's not alone. Over the last decade freshmen academies have sprung up in at least 20 states to help students make the social and academic transition from middle school to high school. Some are in separate buildings. Others occupy a wing or one floor of the school. At Cary High, a shy incoming freshman named Mira Taloozey(ph) with shoulder-length blonde hair says she knows her study habits need some work.

MIRA TALOOZEY (Student, Cary High School): I don't study enough. It's going to get way hard. Everyone tells us that ninth grade is a whole lot harder than eighth grade, and it's so different.

JONES: Most students may find those differences overwhelming. They're traveling out of their neighborhood. They're coming from different educational backgrounds and may enter high school three or four years behind their classmates. James McPartland is an educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University. One reason some of these kids get in trouble, McPartland says, is they suddenly find themselves having to compete with peers from better schools.

Mr. JAMES McPARTLAND (Educational Researcher, John Hopkins University): Many of the kids fail the ninth grade because they're poorly prepared in their earlier experiences. They're way behind in reading, they're way behind in math.

JONES: He says many kids can't catch up on their own, and they need extra help.

Mr. McPARTLAND: We call it double-dosing. They give extra time in math and English, so the kids that are behind can have some time to close those gaps.

JONES: At Cary High, students have access to special tutorials and classes to help them stay on track. Research has shown that ninth-grade academies can cut the dropout rate if students continue to get extra help throughout high school. Although the freshman academy at Cary High is only a year old, there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of students who have repeated ninth grade. Still, not all of the school's entering freshmen are happy about going there. Danielle Barreo(ph), who has freckles and long, dark brown hair, is one of them.

DANIELLE BARREO (Student, Cary High School): You don't have as many class opportunities for electives. You just have a few, and those are taken away when you're not in the bigger high school 'cause there's not as many teachers to teach those classes.

JONES: But not everyone is thinking about academics. Taylor Scott(ph), who looks like he just stepped off the beach with a white-bead necklace, a T-shirt and cargo shorts, says hanging out with other freshmen is going to be a drag.

TAYLOR SCOTT (Student, Cary High School): I wish it would be more mixed 'cause I have friends that are in higher grade, and I just want to be able to talk to them instead of just ninth-graders.

JONES: But Scott says he knows he only has to be here for one year, that is as long as he passes all of his classes. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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