Crispus Attucks High School is redesigning its freshman year experience, and the changes could soon be a model for Indianapolis Public Schools.
Attucks will see hundreds of new students next fall as one of the district’s four high schools spared from closure. That change will come a year after the school lost its middle school grades, prompting the administration to rethink its approach to ninth grade and create a program to help students adjust and thrive.
“When kids have a successful ninth grade year, they are going to be successful the rest of their high school years,” said Principal Lauren Franklin. “They are more prone to success and graduation. … We want them to walk across that stage, and we want them to be set up for a successful post-secondary career.”
The linchpin of the effort is a new freshman academy and a focus on monitoring whether ninth graders are on track to graduate, which Indianapolis Public Schools is planning to roll out to the three other district-run high schools next year.
At Attucks, the approach began this year. Freshman students were moved to the third floor of the building, where they were clustered into classes with primarily other freshman and the same teachers. Those teachers are grouped into two teams who have many of the same students in their classes, and teams meet twice each week to discuss how their students are doing.
Those may seem like simple changes, but they have reshaped how teachers think about students, said assistant principal George Sims, who oversees the academy. Instead of focusing on just how students are doing in their classes, teachers are thinking about students’ entire school experience, he said.
When Attucks served middle schoolers as well as high school students, freshmen were already familiar with the school and staff, so the transition was easier, he said. Next year, however, it will be especially important to have teachers who pay close attention to freshmen.
“You’ve got a group of teachers who understand that this is a special group,” Sims said. “They are freshmen. We are still teaching them how to play the game of school.”
Some of the strongest research on the importance of ninth grade comes from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. The consortium has found that students who complete freshman year on track — those who earn enough credits and fail no more than one class — are almost four times more likely to graduate than peers who are off track. And freshman success is not just an early indicator of whether students might drop out. Chicago Public Schools dramatically boosted graduation rates when high schools began a focused effort to improve ninth grade outcomes.
Because of the city’s success using freshman on track programs to boost high school graduation rates, Chicago has become something of a model for other districts. Beginning last year, staff from Indianapolis Public School have been traveling to Chicago for freshman on track trainings through the Network for College Success, a partnership between 15 schools and the University of Chicago.
The trainings were paid for by Stand for Children Indiana, a parent organizing group that’s also active in local education politics. The group paid $12,000 last year to send Indianapolis educators to the trainings, and it expects to spend another $35,000 in 2018. Stand primarily works with parents at elementary schools, but freshman on track drew the interest of executive director Justin Ohlemiller because it has a track record of success, he said.
“We can’t forget about children who may or may not be on a pathway to success in middle and high school,” he said. “There’s still opportunities to provide supports for those children and get them on a successful track.”
At its core, the freshman-on-track program is about using student data on grades, attendance, and behavior to monitor which students are struggling and develop plans to help them do better. Sometimes those plans start when teachers are discussing their students with each other. But they can also come from talking with the students themselves.
Beginning this week, social studies teacher and ninth grade team lead Katie Knutson has been meeting with freshmen to talk about their grades and attendance. To get ready, she hand-wrote about 100 forms. She knows her students pretty well, but there were still some data that surprised her, Knutson said.
“There are students who I was looking at and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, why do they have Cs?’,” she said. “They were still on track, but I’m like, ‘they should not have Cs. I’m having a talk with them because they are an A student.’ ”
Most of Knutson’s meetings with students only take a few minutes. But for some students, the conversation takes longer. One student, she learned during a conversation with him, often plays phone games during class, so she emailed all his other teachers to let them know about the problem and to ask them to “be on crackdown.”
Knutson, who has taught at Attucks for seven years, always paid attention to how students were doing in the classes she taught. And when she handed out report cards, she discussed their failing grades. But sometimes she wouldn’t follow up with them about whether they were doing better.
This year, that’s different. Students who are failing classes show up on a list for the freshman teams to discuss, and teachers will have regular check-ins with students.
The new approach “keeps us accountable for checking in with students, because Post-it notes are going to fly off our desks like crazy, and our to-do lists are a mile long,” Knutson said.
The importance of freshman year is clear to English teacher Tyler Rogers from her own experience. As a freshman in high school, she failed a math class. At the time, none of her teachers discussed the long-term consequences. But when she started thinking about college, she had a lot of ground to make up.
With more attention from teachers who notice problems like bad attendance or failing grades, she hopes it will be different for her students.
“I didn’t take my freshman year seriously at all,” she said. “So when it came to my junior and senior year, I had to work 10 times harder just to bring up my GPA.”