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Twin Cities schools target 9th grade to boost graduation rates

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In ninth grade, students may be more focused on fitting into their new high schools than graduating on time. But experts say success in ninth grade can be critical to whether a student finishes high school on time. A new effort in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools aims to keep a closer eye on students during that pivotal year. 

Minneapolis started a push last year to predict a student's likelihood of finishing ninth grade with enough credits to move on to 10th grade, and without failing any core classes.

Two Minneapolis schools piloted the system. The teachers got quarterly reports that showed student grades, attendance and behavior data, all in one place. The reports showed which students were set to finish the year "on-track," and which ones needed more help.

Minneapolis evaluation specialist Lizzie McNamara said teachers at Henry and Roosevelt high schools could see the multiple measurements of student progress all in one place for the first time.

"It also brought a different sort of intentionality to some of their meetings, in that it was like 'We need to talk about these students and we need to leave this meeting with a plan for how we're going to support these students,'" she said. 

Next year, Minneapolis plans to bring teachers together in all its high schools to look at this "on-track" data. The Twin Cities education coalition Generation Next is working with Minneapolis on the project and also plans to help start the effort in St. Paul schools this fall.

Teachers are no strangers to data, of course — in Minneapolis measures of attendance, behavior and grades have been accessible to teachers for years. But experts say focusing on ninth grade, in particular, can be helpful for boosting long-term outcomes like graduation rates.

University of Chicago researcher David Johnson studied a 2007 Chicago Public Schools effort that the Twin Cities project is based on. Johnson said ninth grade is important for a couple reasons.

"When you fail courses in ninth grade and then consequently don't accumulate credits toward graduation, it tends to have a kind of snowball effect," he said. "You end up further and further behind the eight ball as time goes on."

He said that in ninth grade, students are making the hard transition from middle school to high school. And aside from the logistical problems of repeating courses, class failures can also have a lasting psychological impact. Teens are figuring out their identities — which social groups they belong to — and what kind of students they are.

"If you think about what happens when you fail a course you're receiving a very loud and clear message in a lot of ways that you don't belong here, you can't succeed here, this is not a place for people like you," he said. "One way or another, whether a teacher means that or not, based on the way that they think about what giving that grade is, that may be what a student ultimately takes from it." 

The Chicago study found that keeping students on track in ninth grade translated to higher high school graduation rates for those students.

McNamara hopes for the same benefit in Minneapolis, although it's too early to tell.

She said as the effort expands next year, just delivering the new data to schools won't be enough. Teachers and staff will need time in the day to use those numbers, and figure out how to get the students who are slipping, back on the path to graduation.

"The really important part of this whole process is the team meeting — that those people who know the students, who see the students on an individual basis and work with them, and who have relationships with them — that those people talk about data to understand what data really is telling them and then plan for interventions and supports based on that." 

Because even the best data system is only as good as the people using it.