It’s critical for students making the transition from middle to high school to know that the adults around them understand and care about them, but high school is also the time when parent and teacher attention can become hard to come by.
“When you have 100 kids on your caseload, you have to deal with the bigger issues in class, and the kid who comes 30 seconds late to class every day can slip under your radar,” said Josh Tripp, who was a math teacher in the nearly 400-student Bucksport High School four years ago when the school district, located on the state’s far-north coast, volunteered to participate in a $5 million development grant in the first round of the federal Investing in Innovation program.
The grant’s purpose was to evaluate the Building Assets-Reducing Risks program, aimed at smoothing students’ transition from middle to high school through a system that enables teachers to direct more attention to students’ academic, emotional, and social needs.
BARR is among a handful of programs that started out as promising ideas under i3’s development grants but have built up enough evidence to scale up and move to a new grant to validate their model in other districts. That first development grant, which included four low-performing schools including Bucksport, built enough success to earn the fledgling program a $12 million, still ongoing, validation grant in 2013—which includes the 1,100-student Noble High School several hours south in North Berwick and a pilot to potentially expand statewide in Maine.
The grants enabled BARR to expand from a single high school in Minnesota to 45 urban, suburban, and rural schools, representing more than 17,000 students and more than 800 teachers in California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.
For schools in Bucksport and North Berwick, being part of the federal research program has helped build connections, on their own campuses and with very different schools across the country.
“I thought we were really good at interpersonal relationships with our kids,” Tripp said, “but you don’t know your kids until you are talking about them every week.”
A Promising Idea
Angela Jerabek, the 9th grade guidance counselor at St. Louis Park High School, in Minnesota, developed BARR in 1998, after noticing that nearly half the freshmen at her school were failing at least one core academic course—a red flag for dropout risk.
“You had essentially a high school guidance counselor who wanted to solve the dropout problem in her school, and she has come up with a solution that has produced pretty incredible results, not just for her school and in Minnesota, but in districts in California and Maine,” said Nadya Chinoy Dabby, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education.
Under the program, incoming freshmen are grouped into cohorts of about 30 who take the same core reading, math, and science classes together. They also receive a 30-minute lesson each week on social-emotional skills—everything from reading body language to working effectively in groups to coping with stress—taught on a rotating basis in a core class. Teachers meet every week for a check-in on every student in their cohort, evaluating not just academic but social and family needs and strengths.
“It’s all work we’ve been doing for 20 years, but before BARR, there was no structure to it, no data collection, so you ended up talking about the same students over and over again,” said Susan Savell, the director of the Center for Positive Youth Development in Portland, Maine, and a co-director of BARR’s validation project here.
St. Louis Park High’s course-failure rate fell from 47 percent to 28 percent in the first year of BARR and leveled off at less than 20 percent in the 15 years since. The program drew interest from other schools, but “BARR was just implemented in one school in Minnesota for 14 years,” said Maryann Corsello, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, and one of the independent evaluators of BARR’s i3 development and validation grants. She said i3 “really gave us the opportunity to see, well, will it work outside of St. Louis Park High School, and will it work if we put a really rigorous scientific test to it?”
As part of BARR’s 2010 development grant to Jerabek’s i3 fiscal agent, Search Institute, the program had its first randomized controlled trial of 555 entering 9th graders in 2011-12 in one large suburban Los Angeles high school and two small rural high schools in Maine, including Bucksport. Students in each school were randomly assigned to participate in BARR or not.
That initial evaluation, by Abt Associates and Corsello Consulting, found that students who participated in the program earned on average a half-credit more in core subject areas per year and had significantly higher grade point averages in core classes by the end of 9th grade, 2.91 versus 2.67 for students not in BARR. Participating students’ scores also grew significantly more from fall 2011 to spring 2012 on standardized math and reading tests.
The difference meant that students who participated in BARR moved from an average 8th grade achievement level on fall math tests, for example, to a 10th grade level by spring, while nonparticipating students actually fell back to a 7th grade level in math performance on the standardized test. Initially lower-performing students made bigger improvements, researchers found, and in Los Angeles, Hispanic students in BARR closed their gap with non-Hispanic white students in math and reading and remained on par for at least the next year. After the first year of BARR, participating students in all schools were 10 percentage points less likely to fail a core academic class, and after three years, the share of students who failed at least one 9th grade course dropped from 42 percent to 18.5 percent.
“The ramp up for [BARR’s teacher team meetings] is a lot of work, but you see the fruit of that work pretty quickly,” said Brad Brubaker, a BARR teacher for more than 15 years at St. Louis Park High. He is now a trainer for other schools involved in the i3 grant.
The weekly student reviews are both the biggest lift and the core of what makes the program work, teachers at several sites agreed.
On a Monday in December, the teacher team at Noble High School projects a large Excel spreadsheet on the chalkboard and takes each student, line by line. For every one, the teachers discuss academic strengths and weaknesses as well as social issues. These are not drawn-out discussions; they cover 45 students in 45 minutes, and the students flagged for serious concerns are discussed in more depth later that day, in a smaller group including the school psychologist and assistant principal.
The sessions cover high-achieving students as well as struggling ones and focus on identifying the strengths students can build on, rather than just their problem areas.
“Grades are a good indicator of how a student is doing, but if you just look at grades, you miss a lot of things: social changes, friend-group changes, attendance, health, all of a sudden a student is getting too skinny ...,” said Janice Eldridge, a social studies teacher who coordinates BARR at Noble High. “It’s like a puzzle, and everybody holds a piece of the puzzle, so when we are all together, we can see the whole kid.”
For the most part, teachers strategize on ways to help students weather the daily ups and downs of high school life; one boy can’t stay after school for extra help because he has to babysit siblings, so a science teacher has told him to bring the younger children in to watch a movie while he is tutored.
Brubaker said setting and monitoring weekly goals for each student makes the difference between gossip and real student support. “Often, as a teacher, you talk about a kid, but you assume something will get done without having a specific plan, and nothing really changes,” Brubaker said. The goals are kept clear and short-term: Turn in homework every day for a week, for example, or attend a skipped class every day.
Dylan Soper, a senior from the first cohort of Bucksport’s BARR freshmen, said it can feel “almost creepy that other teachers know when you miss an assignment in another class. ... but it helps, because all my teachers made time for me and were there to help me out.”
Teachers at Noble High have become better at noticing students falling behind in classes or stepping in to stop patterns of bullying, said Kelly Dumont, a 10th grader at Noble. “Kids are really good at being mean without teachers noticing. Some teachers are good at picking up on it; some teachers are kind of oblivious,” she said.
Dumont also praised iTime, BARR’s 30-minute weekly social-emotional learning lessons. Many of them include exercises designed to get students to learn more about each other and work together, and Dumont said the students who participated teased each other less: “When we did the iTime, it’s like we said, ‘Oh, you’re a person, too.’ ”
Under the i3 validation grant, which runs through 2018, BARR is conducting a randomized controlled trial of another 1,000 incoming freshmen, this time in one urban and one suburban high school in California and one rural high school, Noble High, in Maine. Preliminary data from the first year show that 61.5 percent of BARR students passed all their fall and spring courses in math, reading, and science, compared with only 46.9 percent of nonparticipating students. Student and teacher surveys also found that students in BARR were significantly more likely to report feeling they had supportive relationships with teachers in their school, and teachers were significantly more likely to report collaborating with their colleagues and using data to guide instruction.
Corsello, the University of New England professor emeritus, and other BARR program officials and evaluators all suggested that if those initial results continue, BARR will look to scale up in an even-larger grant as part of the new version of i3 under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Noble Middle School is not part of BARR’s validation grant, but Principal Mike Roberts was persuaded to adapt it for middle school. “It’s one of the first times in education I’ve really seen an experiment taking place in a school and the results have been pretty impressive,” Roberts said. “Our attendance is better, the test results are better, the discipline is much better.” Last year, students in the BARR program had 400 total absences; those not in the program had 800. “This doesn’t feel like the next academic fad—it feels like this is something Noble does, who we are.”
Tripp, one of Bucksport High School’s first BARR teachers, feels the same. He became principal of Bucksport Middle School this year and has started rolling out BARR there, too.
Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as Intervention Targets 9th Grade Transition