How high schools break up the ‘ninth-grade bottleneck’ to help students graduate on time

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.


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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.

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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.”

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