As research increasingly shows that ninth grade is a make-or-break year, educators around Puget Sound are reinventing the freshman experience to help all students early and often.
On a sunny Saturday morning just before school let out for the summer, more than 100 students crammed into the library at West Seattle High and — over four tense hours — rushed to make up overdue assignments and retake tests.
Many of the students arrived in pajamas. They bristled at any interruption, and left a generous spread of breakfast food mostly untouched.
For some, this was the second of three consecutive Saturdays they spent in the library as part of a catch-up frenzy before teachers closed their grade books for the semester. And these weekend study halls — typically offered just once a month — capped a yearlong effort aimed at preventing any of the Seattle school’s 274 freshmen from failing even one class.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Across Washington state, roughly 1 in 5 ninth-graders failed at least one core course in the 2015-16 school year. And across the Puget Sound region, freshman failure rates ranged from as little as 4 percent on Mercer Island to a high of 38 percent in Clover Park and Tukwila.
Traditionally, high schools offer studentsa sink-or-swim scenario: Those with poor grades are expected to catch up on their own through repeat classes, summer school or online courses.
Hear more on KNKX
On Monday morning, Sept. 4, Seattle Times reporter Neal Morton will talk about freshman-support programs with KNKX’s Ariel Van Cleave. Tune in at 5:44 a.m., 7:44 a.m. or listen at knkx.org.
But a growing body of research suggests the grades students earn in their freshman year are a strong predictor of whether they’ll ever graduate — stronger than their test scores or even family income.
That’s why schools like West Seattle are paying more attention to their first-year students, and offering them more support earlier.
“Freshman year is really the make-or-break year,” said Sandi Whiton, West Seattle’s academic intervention specialist. “We’re trying to revolutionize education here so it’s not a year defined by failure.”