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Special School Reduces 'Distractions' for 9th Graders

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ALEXANDRIA, VA.--To educators at the Minnie Howard School here, 9th graders are a special breed. Insecure yet full of braggadocio, energetic yet unfocused, these students at the threshold of their high school years often have needs that are overlooked in high school and even in junior high school.

That, in part, is why this public school, which opened this month, is devoted exclusively to that unique, noisy, and precarious grade level.

"High school is a nightmare for younger kids,'' said Margaret Walsh, Minnie Howard's principal. "You're sharing a bathroom with some kids who are nearly 20 when you're 13, and this is at a time when self-confidence issues are critical.''

"This is giving us a chance to latch onto one of the most critical age groups,'' she said.

Minnie Howard is one of only a handful of schools nationwide that house only 9th graders. Most such schools, however, have been temporary arrangements intended to relieve overcrowding.

One school district committed to the idea on a long-term basis is fast-growing Orange County, Fla., where officials have opened three 9th-grade centers and are making plans for more.

Another is this Washington suburb, where the facility that houses the 9th-grade center was purposely renovated to fulfill its mission. Although the arrangement was controversial at first, school officials say it is here to stay.

Finding Space

In the beginning, the proposal to set aside one school for 9th graders was driven by the same practical considerations that have led to such configurations elsewhere. Alexandria officials realized in the late 1980's that the city's only high school, with 2,300 students, was reaching capacity.

In response, officials offered the community three options: adding a floor to the high school, building a new high school, or refurbishing an old elementary school and putting the 9th graders there.

The first choice, which cost more than $12 million, was too expensive, said Superintendent Paul Masem. And the second was unacceptable to residents.

"People were satisfied with a single high school here, and they weren't particularly interested in another school,'' Mr. Masem said. "The reaction ranged from 'No way,' to 'That's fine as long as my kid doesn't have to go to the other school.'''

That left the idea of converting the Minnie Howard school for 9th-grade use. Long used as an administration building, the 40-year-old structure could be renovated for only about $2 million. Moreover, it was close enough to the high school to allow students to take part in sports and other special programs there.

"It was serendipity,'' Mr. Masem said.

Some school board members and parents opposed the proposal.

"I was concerned about the potential long-term expense of essentially creating another secondary school and the potential duplication of expenses,'' said Judy Seltz, who voted against the 9th-grade center as a board member in 1991 and 1992.

Ms. Seltz said she also feared that isolating 9th graders was the wrong strategy for that age group.

"Sometimes, it's harder when there's nobody older and nobody younger and you're dealing with all kinds of adolescent issues,'' she said.

Seizing an Opportunity

Once the issue was decided in early 1992, however, school officials seized on it as a way to reach students at a turning point in their school careers. Studies show that more students drop out in the 9th grade than at any other grade level.

School officials, parents, and teachers designed a program that combined some of the reforms being called for nationally for middle schools with innovations of their own.

"We wanted to take some of the core strengths of the middle school program, but also be cognizant that students do not have that in high school,'' said Principal Walsh, who returned to school administration to take on the new program.

To create a more nurturing environment for young people, for example, every teacher is responsible for keeping tabs on 13 students, getting in touch with their families, and overseeing their educational progress.

The 650 students in the school are divided into five "teams.'' Each team is housed in its own wing of the building, and students attend all of their classes with other team members. Each team's teachers meet regularly to discuss instructional issues.

The school also has more guidance counselors per students than other district schools, and its guidance center was designed to handle the anticipated extra traffic.

Every Minnie Howard student must take algebra, which studies suggest is linked to higher mathematics achievement.

"We're not going to call you a 9th-grade student and have you do three-digit arithmetic,'' Ms. Walsh said.

All the students also will take a world-civilization course, which is taught jointly by social-studies and language-arts teachers.

School officials even outfitted the renovated facility with a new carpet, randomly splashed with bright-colored geometric shapes, that seems to symbolize the high energy and whirling emotions of mid-adolescence.

No 'Bigger Kids'

Some of the instructional changes were more controversial than the idea itself of isolating 9th graders.

The world-civilization course, for example, had previously been available only as an honors program in the school system. When plans were announced to have all students take the course, some parents of high-achieving students objected to having it "de-tracked.'' To allay their concerns, school officials decided to maintain a separate honors level for the course.

While they appear to have some doubts about the carpet, students interviewed on their second day of classes last week said they like being with others their own age.

"I changed my mind; I wasn't too wild about it at first,'' said Peter Hearding. "I think it's a lot nicer than having people of different ages running around school.''

For Lamar Loving, not having to start high school this year was a relief.

"I don't really want to go there because people are older than me and they are all bigger than me,'' he said.

Conversely, added Mauri Hope, "You don't have to worry about having little kids running around.''

Indeed, said Vice Principal Randolph Mitchell, having students the same age seems to cut down on the "distractions'' caused by older students harassing younger ones.

"Students are pretty much going to function within their own age group anyway,'' he said. "Having them in the same building just gives them the opportunity to socialize better with each other.''

Elaine Crowley, who is a co-chairwoman of a parent task force at the school, said most parents are becoming comfortable with the idea as well.

"A lot of parents thought their kids would want to be part of the high school,'' she said, "but I have been surprised at the students' desire to maintain their own identity.''

Ms. Crowley noted that her son's reaction to the new school was that it is "fine.''

"Which for him,'' she added, "was a rave review.''

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