Ninth grade: a school year to be reckoned with

With more students held back or dropping out in ninth grade, educators are taking a new look at high school, adolescence, and their pitfalls.

Stephanie Rohrer, a pigtailed ninth-grader at the high school here, hasn't had a stellar year. The ROTC recruit played hooky over 30 times last semester - and failed all four core subjects. "I was having a little too much fun," she admits.

Now Stephanie is a prime candidate to be held back. And she's part of a growing wave of kids spending an extra year in ninth grade - or never making it to 10th - due to failed classes, tightened testing standards, and a simple eagerness to leave. Nationwide, the rate at which ninth-grade students don't get to 10th has tripled in the past 30 years, according to a new study by Boston College.

The rise in retention and dropout rates has revived and retooled a controversy over whether schools retain students for the right reasons, and whether the shame and frustration of retention is prompting more teenagers to quit school.

In North Carolina - an extreme case, but emblematic of a national trend - about 15 percent of kids are now "retained" in ninth grade, according to a new Boston College study. Some suspect a correlation with the staggering dropout rate: Nearly 1 in 5 students never returns for grade 10. Then, too, by the time retained students finish ninth grade, many are near the age at which they can quit without parental permission.

Part of retention, say experts, is a growing emphasis on state testing. But racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors figure in, too: Among black, tribal American, and Hispanic students statewide, 1 in 4 now repeats freshman year.

Ninth grade - typically the first year of high school - comes at the end of what are widely considered kids' most vulnerable years. Between jocks, bullies, squirts, and geeks, these middle years present some of life's first real chances for average kids to fail.

"When you have basic disparities and you superimpose accountability, suddenly you have a lot of 17- and 18-year-old kids, many of them minorities, sitting there in 10th grade," says Fred Medway, a family-psychology professor at the University of South Carolina.

To be sure, educational attainment is at historic highs, and today's graduation rates hover near records of the late 1960s. But a slew of new studies show that while peak attainment has climbed, more are calling it quits before they get to trigonometry: 1 in 4 eighth graders never goes to high school.

"Often, the students we're not reaching are the ones in the middle, who don't distinguish themselves athletically and intellectually and who aren't getting into trouble," says Andre Smith, principal of Wake Forest-Rolesville High School.

Educators point to everything from the battery of tests now required to a lack of maturity as they probe this fissure in the arc of adolescence. At its heart, the dilemma goes to how schools, along with families, might rally around kids full of adult bravado but still emotionally vulnerable as they stumble through life-altering decisions. "When people realize that some of these choices ... have potential long-term [or] permanent ramifications, it scares the bejeepers out of the adult community," says Jack Agati, a child-rearing expert.

Analysts say retention isn't the punishment it once was, but can be a necessary part of the learning cycle. "For some kids, being held back is the best thing," says Andrew Markoch, the administrator of the Ninth Grade Center at Wake Forest-Rolesville.

A bolder academic focus may at least help schools "to stop kidding themselves" about student performance, says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a University of Delaware child-development expert.

Many districts are now taking action. Some are starting "academies" that segregate freshmen and give them special attention. In Chicago, the country's third-largest district is discouraging would-be dropouts through waiver forms warning them of the dangers of quitting school. The city is also planning longer classes for kids having trouble in core subjects.

And many school systems are pondering a revamp of the junior high concept to better prepare incoming freshmen. In New York, up to two-thirds of the city's middle schools may be eliminated, making high schools 6th through 12th grades - an effort, in part, to smooth the middle years. In a huge educational overhaul, Indiana will track students more carefully during the high school transition and raise the minimum age that a student can drop out. And in Rhode Island, one district now runs a "truancy court" where school-skippers must explain their absences.

Here in the South, the declining freshman promotion rate is exacerbated by the issue of race, and concerns among black parents that their children get lost in an insensitive bureaucracy. One issue, analysts say, is that "survival skills" learned in poorer African-American communities don't always mesh with middle-class behaviors that high schools try to instill. "Kids from different geographic settings are coming in with different survival skills, and there's a need for districts to ... rechannel their ingenuity," says Mr. Agati.

But with options like GEDs, Job Corps, and the military, opportunities abound for the young and hungry, increasingly making them pass over their best chance at a decent, free education.

"When they're old enough to leave and there are other things for them to do, they come to the conclusion that school isn't helpful," says Jay Greene, an education analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

For Ms. Rohrer, academics are back in focus, with help from the school's Ninth Grade Academy - to be rolled out in all county high schools next year. It combines a "center" - a former library with donated couches - with an emphasis on the transition to high school.

But what concerns Mr. Markoch is whether her new focus on "Fahrenheit 451" will mean a passing grade. "I'll be checking your report card next week," he says. "I'm hoping it's good news."

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