The Critical 9th Grade Year: 6 Tips for Educators to Support Smooth High School Transitions and Graduation Success

Nov 17, 2023
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The transition from middle school or junior high school to high school is a significant one for all students. High school brings more independence, flexibility in course choices and schedules, larger workloads, and less direct supervision. For teenage students, the lines between freedom and responsibility can quickly become blurred. However, a wealth of research has begun to point to 9th grade as the critical year in determining whether students will graduate from high school and move on with their studies or drop out before graduating.

With stakes this high, what can educators do to make the move to high school as smooth as possible and help students achieve success in that vital 9th grade year? Here are six things for educators to consider:

1. Leverage teacher teams

You know the saying: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Try taking a team-based approach to ensure that at-risk 9th graders don’t fall through the cracks. Build small teams of core content area teachers to monitor the progress of shared students. Have these teams meet regularly to share personal experiences they’ve had with each student, review strengths and weaknesses, and talk about any concerns. Make sure that thorough notes are taken about each student to have a running record of progress and a solid starting point to develop intervention plans and bring in other specialists (like guidance counselors) when needed. Yes, this approach will take up more of teachers’ valuable time, but the holistic view of and accountability for student progress it creates is well worth the effort.

2. Keep count of credits

Credits tend to multiply—whether they’re being earned or failed. Failing even a single course as a 9th grader can have serious implications because it’s such a critical time in students’ academic careers for building their own perceptions of themselves as learners. Struggling in or failing one or more classes can quickly lead 9th grade students to view school as something that they are not good at and, in turn, lose motivation to put forth effort. Think of credits earned as an early indicator for success or failure. Monitor 9th grade students who are not passing or at risk of failing in one or more classes, and provide interventions and additional supports as soon as possible so that students don’t have the chance to fall behind in credits.

3. Encourage strong attendance

Similar to credits earned, school absences are another vital early-indicator metric to consider for 9th grade students. Research from both the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute and the School District of Philadelphia has shown that missing as few as five days of school throughout the 9th grade year can affect students’ likelihood to graduate with their class. So, make sure that all teachers are taking the time to take careful attendance and monitor students’ attendance records from the very beginning of the school year.

Connect with students who are showing consistent patterns of absence (missing more than one day per week in the first semester of school is a good benchmark based on the Philadelphia study), and see if you can identify why they might be missing class.

Often, fostering stronger, more supportive relationships with adults in the school can improve attendance, and adjusting course schedules to make learning more engaging can motivate students. Keep in mind that students may miss school for a number of reasons and that their frequent absences may be the result of circumstances beyond their control, but early intervention could allow some obstacles to be addressed head-on. Learn more about what you can do to address chronic absenteeism in your school community.

4. Advertise extracurricular opportunities

Building strong relationships with both peers and school staff is crucial to helping 9th grade students make a smooth transition into high school and develop that all-important feeling of belonging. Extracurricular groups can play a key role in cultivating those relationships in addition to giving students outlets to explore their interests and support college and career goals. So, be sure that 9th graders are made aware of the various opportunities available to them.

Host an activities fair during the school year where sports teams; theater, art, and music groups; professional interest groups; and other clubs can advertise their mission and talk to 9th graders who may be interested. Alternatively, invite representatives from those groups to come to 9th grade classrooms for brief presentations, or consider implementing a mentorship program that matches 9th graders with upperclassmen with shared interests. There are plenty of approaches to take; the important thing is to make sure that 9th graders have multiple avenues to truly become part of your school community.

5. Provide a supportive home base

We’ve already established that paying attention to early-indicator metrics and building relationships are key to supporting 9th graders, but both of these methods can be easier said than done. One approach that more and more high schools are implementing is the use of some kind of “Freshman Seminar” course.

These courses can be offered over advisory periods, or they can take the place of a standard class period. But, the whole idea is to create small groups of 9th grade students, schedule them to meet consistently throughout the school year to cultivate community, and use the time to help students access additional learning resources and build study skills. This will also give staff a chance to develop closer relationships with students and focus on progress monitoring.

6. Think of the transition as a multi-year process

Do as much as possible to be proactive about preparing middle school and junior high students for the changes ahead of them in high school. If you work in a district with cohesive feeder schools, help put processes in place during the 8th grade year so that students will know what to expect in regard to high school schedules, academic expectations, and social changes.

Consider pairing with your middle school teachers to host a panel of high school students to talk to 8th graders; sharing high school maps, bell schedules, and extracurricular program listings with 8th graders during the spring; exposing 8th graders to some 9th grade assignments; or any of these other ideas from the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) to get started.

If your high school does not have cohesive feeder schools or if you have a high population of transient students, focus on building a strong summer orientation program with local middle schools so that incoming 9th graders have sufficient opportunity to see the building; get familiar with the schedule; meet their teachers; and find out about groups, clubs, and sports that they will have the opportunity to get involved with.

Looking for more ideas to help 9th graders make a smooth transition to high school and achieve graduation success? Consider how virtual learning solutions can provide flexible alternative options for early intervention to meet the needs of more students.

This post was originally published October 2018 by Sarah Cornelius and has been updated.

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