SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
We're going to take you now to a high school in St. Louis Park, Minn., that's reinventing the freshman year of high school and helping ninth graders succeed. It all starts with a meeting, as Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team reports.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: This is St. Louis Park High School in suburban Minneapolis. Up on the third floor, there's a room with inspirational posters and free candy on the table. We're here for the weekly block meeting. This is where teachers who all have the same ninth graders sit down over a Google doc with the school support staff, the social worker, the counselor, sometimes even the school police officer.
KELLY BROWN: Do we want to start with the check-in?
DANIEL PEREZ: I can start.
KAMENETZ: That's Daniel Perez, a school social worker, with Kelly Brown, who leads this work called The BARR method for Building Assets, Reducing Risks. These meetings are for talking about three things. First, the data - attendance, behavior, grades. Here's Alex Polk, a science teacher.
ALEX POLK: But she's been late 19 times and is late with the same group of people each time.
KAMENETZ: Second, the big picture of the students' lives. Here's Perez.
PEREZ: He said he and his mom don't get along, he feels ignored by her, and kind of also, like, you know, yelled at. Dad is not in the picture. He does not have friends here at Park, and he's not interested in making friends.
KAMENETZ: Finally, they come up with a personalized plan for what to do to help each student, like tutoring or calling home. Tjessa Arradondo, a sophomore who loves chemistry and writes for the school paper, explains how that worked for her.
TJESSA ARRADONDO: I have anxiety, so if I was, like, you know, stressed, I'd go down to the counselor's office, and they would kind of talk to me, and we'd come up with a plan on how to, you know, adjust.
KAMENETZ: This year, she's says, she's managing much better. There's a second BARR meeting each week called Risk Review to focus on the kids in the toughest situations. Just on one Thursday, we hear about drug issues, fears of deportation and a student who may not have a place to sleep.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's saying that he's safe and has food.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, but does mom know where he's at?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I don't think so.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nobody does.
KAMENETZ: They make a plan to connect him with a community organization.
All this goes back to 1998, when Angela Jerabek was a counselor for freshman here at St. Louis Park.
ANGELA JERABEK: About half the students had been failing a course, and I was really discouraged.
KAMENETZ: Many students stumble in the transition to high school, more than any other year of school. This raises the risk of dropping out, hurting your prospects, your income, basically your entire life just from one F grade. Researchers call this the ninth-grade shock. Jerabek was so down that she wanted to quit.
JERABEK: So I went to the principal to say I don't think I'm doing this job well, and I feel like I should resign.
KAMENETZ: Her principal wasn't having it.
JERABEK: He said that the issue wasn't just with our high school and said this is a national issue. And I really encourage you to come up with a new model for high school.
KAMENETZ: So she did. Jerabek decided all the adults in a school building should come together to make sure that no kid slips through the cracks.
JERABEK: Right away, in the very first year, our failure rate was cut in half, and we just continued to have more and more success.
KAMENETZ: As BARR spread, researchers tested the model by the gold standard, randomized controlled trials, and they found it raises test scores and pass rates, reduces suspensions and students feel more engaged and challenged at school. At big city schools, Jerabek says...
JERABEK: There's a 40 percent drop in failure rate in the first year.
KAMENETZ: The effects are especially large for students of color, boys and students from low-income families.
The BARR model does cost some money because of the adjustment in teachers' schedules. And it may be harder to put into place in districts that are really hurting for support staff, like counselors. But Jerabek likes to point out BARR shows you can make big changes in a school without changing the students or the teachers just by focusing on relationships.
JERABEK: Many students - they just work harder when they know that the adults care about them.
KAMENETZ: These days, Angie Jerabek spends her time flying from Maine to California. BARR is now in 80 schools in 13 states and Washington, D.C. And over the next five years, Jerabek says that will triple. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
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