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Detroit Proposal Seeks To Pull 9th Graders Out of High School

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Vexed by a chronically high 9th-grade dropout rate, Detroit school officials fhave proposed that all district students at that level be pulled out of high schools and placed elsewhere.

At the school board's urging, a district task force last week was weighing proposals to move 9th-grade students to middle schools or to separate 9th-grade academies. The panel, made up of staff members, parents, and community representatives, is expected to make its recommendations by the fall.

April Howard Coleman, the school board president, and David L. Snead, the general superintendent, have pushed the grade realignment as a way to cushion 9th graders from the pressures of high school and provide them with more individual attention.

"We believe that any action that will help our students stay in school is worth trying,'' Mr. Snead said in a statement last month.

Moving such youngsters out of high school, he said, is "absolutely the right thing to do.''

Such a move would be unusual, however, and the Detroit system's proposal appeared to have caught some experts on education in the middle grades by surprise.

Nationally, the trend is in the opposite direction, with districts moving 9th graders out of junior high schools and into high schools. That trend "is primarily being driven by an attempt to reform the middle grades,'' although some demographic pressures also have come into play, said Joyce L. Epstein, the co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Middle schools typically enroll 7th and 8th graders, and sometimes include 6th graders as well.

Mr. Snead said he was not concerned that his district might buck the national trend. Reform efforts elsewhere, he said, have yet to provide him with a way to address his district's "abysmal'' 9th-grade retention rate.

If the changes Detroit is considering improve the self-esteem, attendance, test scores, or citizenship of 9th graders, "then we've made a substantial move,'' Mr. Snead said.

Overcrowding a Problem

Although Detroit officials say the 175,000-student district has lowered its overall dropout rate from 40 percent to 25 percent in recent years, its students are still far less likely to graduate than those elsewhere in Michigan, and its 9th graders are among the most likely to leave school.

The problem came sharply into focus during the last school year, when the state mandated for the first time that districts conduct midyear enrollment counts. Detroit discovered that it had lost more than 2,000 of its 16,860 high school freshmen during the first six months of the school year. As a result, the district could lose millions of dollars in state aid.

In authorizing the task-force study of 9th graders, the school board agreed that such students "face incredible odds when they move to the high school setting,'' encountering "tremendous peer pressure'' and other difficulties associated with transition "all at the most sensitive stage of adolescent development.''

Robin E. Oden, the principal of Mumford High School on Detroit's West Side, said he has observed that 9th graders often have problems with their self-esteem and respond by either withdrawing or acting out to get attention. "It tends to be those two extremes,'' he said.

Superintendent Snead said it is much easier to monitor such students and provide them with the interventions they need in a junior high school setting.

Aretha J. Marshall, the executive director of the district's office of middle-level education, said taking such children out of high schools also would allow them easier access to the benefits of certain middle school reforms, such as the use of team teaching in small learning environments.

Detroit also has overcrowded high schools and underutilized middle schools that can house the students, district officials said.

In some cases, however, new schools would have to be built or existing schools expanded to accommodate the movement of 9th graders. If such a move is made, the district will be under added pressure to persuade voters to approve an $850 million levy in the fall.

So far, the most vocal opponents of the potential change have been students who do not want to spend their 9th-grade year in middle school.

John M. Elliott, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he does not oppose moving the 9th graders. He believes, however, that the district can reduce its dropout rate only by addressing the deeper causes of student attrition, such as economic pressures or a lack of family support for education.

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