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Detroit Schools Target 9th Grade In Effort To Reduce Dropout Rate

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The big, bald attendance officer cruises the streets in an aqua Chevy Lumina, hauling 14-year-olds out of bedrooms and fast-food joints and into algebra and biology classes. Derrick Howze grew up in this gritty neighborhood and knows where to find the no-shows.

Lisa Smith, a social worker whose 4-foot-10-inch frame, youthful complexion, and sympathetic smile endear her to troubled 9th graders, organizes rap sessions on sex, drugs, violence, and family problems.

This spirited pair is part of a 3-year-old districtwide initiative here that aims to curb Detroit's 25 percent dropout rate by concentrating on 9th graders.

"Ninth grade is a fragile and confusing time for young people," says Henry McKee, the principal of Kettering High School on the city's east side. "They come from smaller and more structured middle schools and are thrust into large high schools with a lot of freedom. They're not made to feel welcome. We're trying to change that."

At Kettering, 9th graders receive extra guidance from people like Mr. Howze and Ms. Smith, study a basic curriculum, and attend most of their classes in one wing of the building, making it easier for them to find their teachers and avoid tangling with older students.

So far, the results are encouraging. Across the district, the number of 9th graders who quit school declined 36 percent from 1995 to 1996. Statistics are still being compiled for 1997, but school leaders say the dropout rate continued to wane.

The efforts of this 183,000-student system reflect a growing awareness among educators nationwide that 9th grade is a make-it-or-break-it school year, when many students lose interest or drop out altogether. While Detroit appears to have the only systemwide program aimed solely at 9th graders, numerous schools and districts are experimenting with similar measures.

Chicago set up "junior academies" this fall for 9th and 10th graders in which they receive mandatory counseling and a basic curriculum in a distinct part of the school building. The Carrollton-Farmers Branch district near Dallas and the Alexandria, Va., district outside Washington offer separate schools for 9th graders. At a high school in California's San Fernando Valley, part of the Los Angeles Unified school district, 60 teachers act as mentors to the incoming class.

"There's definitely a trend toward treating 9th grade as a separate unit and being firm yet nurturing," James M. McPartland, a director at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a recent interview. "If you can help 9th graders get to 10th grade, you can go a long way in solving the dropout problem."

Easing the Transition

In the 1960s, concerns about providing a more supportive environment for early adolescents fueled the middle school movement, which advocated replacing junior high schools serving grades 7-9 with middle schools comprising grades 6-8. The number of middle schools has mushroomed from 3,916 to 10,205 over the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That transformation shifted most 9th graders from junior highs to high schools. But with many students struggling to make the transition, some educators are second-guessing the wisdom of subjecting 14-year-olds to the more intense academic and peer pressures of high school.

"The middle school movement is wrapped around a philosophy of accommodating the psychological and physiological changes that come with early adolescence," said Timothy J. Dyer, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "We need to do a better job of minimizing the shock waves of moving out of middle school."

Detroit pays for its 9th grade program with $16 million a year in state at-risk and federal Title I money aimed at educating poor children. The district's 27 high schools have some leeway in how they spend the money, but most of their programs resemble the one at Kettering High, which enrolls between 400 and 500 9th graders a year.

In the spring, Kettering starts gathering information from its feeder middle schools about 8th graders with poor grades, attendance, and family problems. Those students, usually about one-fourth of the class, are invited to attend five-week summer sessions to give them a glimpse of what they'll study in high school and need to do to graduate.

The 4 «-hour days also include innovative instruction; last summer, students learned Newton's laws of gravity and motion through writing compositions, building model cars, and calculating distances.

"We find they tend to do better if they can get a head start on everyone else," Assistant Principal Willie Howard said.

Role Models

Once school starts, those students are required to check in with Mr. Howze every day, receive after-school tutoring, or receive English and math instruction from teacher Sylvia Sanders, who has a master's degree in counseling. Every five weeks, teachers put failing students on notice to give them time to bring up their grades before report cards come out.

One of Ms. Sanders' students last school year was Phette Lindsey, who gave birth to a baby girl one year ago at the age of 14. Ms. Lindsey had a hard time adjusting to high school and got into a string of fights.

"I didn't want to leave middle school because I got used to the teachers and everyone who worked there," said Ms. Lindsey, dressed all in black one recent morning except for a red Nike cap.

But with the help of Ms. Sanders, Ms. Howard, and Ms. Smith, she brought her grades up to a B average.

"They showed me how to control my temper," Ms. Lindsey said. "They gave me courage to not believe the bad things other people said about me."

The 9th grade faculty also includes teachers like Ron Tracy, a young, bearded English instructor who held his students' attention one afternoon by animatedly telling an African folk tale with the lights turned off and percussive music on a tape player. Mr. Tracy and other teachers were recruited for the 9th grade program because they expressed a particular interest in teaching that grade and collaborating on lesson plans.

"You start to get jaded, with so many parents and kids having bad attitudes, and then they came in and said we're going to rebuild 9th grade," Mr. Tracy recalled. "It gave us a breath of fresh air."

Ms. Howard, a lithe, energetic woman who pauses in the hallways to give out hugs, oversees the 9th grade teachers as well as a support team that includes Ms. Smith, Mr. Howze, a counselor, and a reading specialist. With many students coming from homes where no one has a diploma or a job, many faculty members act as role models.

"I took a couple of kids from failing to the honor roll," Mr. Howze, the attendance officer, said. "Part of the problem was that they weren't getting any love at home."

A 'Flagship' Program

While the main goal of Detroit's 9th grade initiative is to reduce the district's dropout rate, school officials also hope it will help students academically.

At Kettering High, the 9th grade attendance rate rose from 72 percent in 1994-95 to 82 percent in 1996-97. And the percentage of 9th graders who passed all of their classes rose from 60 to 66 over those two years.

The success stories are cause for celebration at Kettering High, a shabby-looking building with tiles missing from the ceiling and gum wrappers on the floor. In the spring, rapper L.L. Cool J presented the school with an award for most-improved attendance.

Districtwide, the impact of the 9th grade initiative was less dramatic. The 9th graders in 1995-96 were vexed with the same overall 1.5 grade point average and 77 percent attendance rate as the class in 1994-95.

But the dropout rate declined substantially. Of the 12,200 students, 11.7 percent quit by the end of 9th grade, compared with 18.3 percent the previous year. Among the 5,600 9th graders who were repeating courses, 34.6 percent dropped out, compared with 42.7 percent the year before.

The good news is more than welcome in a district with low student achievement and a raucous political climate that forced Superintendent David L. Snead and one school board member to resign in October.

"The 9th grade restructuring is one of our flagships," said April Howard Coleman, a school board member and Kettering graduate who started pushing for a special 9th grade program four years ago.

A 1996 survey showed that most principals, teachers, and students like the program. Their recommendations included more parental involvement, extra money for field trips, and a longer summer session.

"I feel that if we weren't here, we'd be losing a lot more kids," said Bennie Griffin, the 9th grade counselor at Kettering. "We're still not saving them all."

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