Freshman Focus Network Schools Use Conditions for Success to Guide Improvement

Grade 9 SuccessNetwork Collaboration and Learning

Grade 9 on-track performance is highly positively correlated with on-time high school graduation and postsecondary access and success. Through the Freshman Focus Network (FFN), and building on a foundation of years of impactful work within our core network, RISE aims to partner with schools and districts to strengthen structures, systems, and practices to further establish key Grade 9 conditions for success.

Previously, we shared how the FFN provides actionable strategies to support students through the Grade 9 transition. Here, we check back in with the 2023-24 FFN cohort to share how schools are making progress, adopting promising practices, and celebrating early results aligned to the conditions for success.

Condition #1: On-Track Definition 

The first condition for Grade 9 success, laying the foundation for others to follow, is establishing an on-track definition. This may vary from school to school based on context-specific factors. But regardless of the context, students, educators, and families must have a shared understanding of what the requirements are for being on-track.

At Danbury High School, which is the largest in the state of Connecticut with over 800 9th graders and 3,600 students total, the Grade 9 team has prioritized creating an on-track definition as a focus area in their first year of the Freshman Focus Network. This past fall, Grade 9 assistant principal Kristopher Davidson gave a presentation to the FFN about how his team established and communicated on-track criteria.

Davidson and his team applied learnings from RISE’s Grade 9 Summer Symposium, identified the problems they were looking to solve, and used this to inform specific criteria. They then created accessible graphics illustrating what it means to be on-track, which they presented during their Grade 9 orientations for students and parents, posted throughout the school, and embedded into staff meetings. According to Davidson, “The staff knew [the on-track metric] was six credits but we needed to make it annoyingly in your face. We want to be transparent, and put it in as many places as we can.”

And Danbury’s efforts are paying off. They are making impressive gains, as they have already met their on-track goal of 80 percent (or 664 out of 832 students) with a quarter of the school year left to go to exceed that goal.

Condition #2: Data Visibility

The keys to the second Grade 9 condition for success, data visibility, are access and accuracy. This means that educators need access to data related to attendance, grades, and behavior, which should be clear and actionable. RISE coaches work directly with FFN school teams on how to best work within their current infrastructure to ensure they can see which students are on and off track. An established on-track definition, combined with accurate and accessible data, enables educators to most effectively support their students.

In the Worcester Public School system in Massachusetts, our FFN partnership has grown from two participating high schools in 2022-23 to five schools in 2023-24, owing in part to a district-wide push for better alignment and data visibility. 

The district has seen progress across all schools, among which Burncoat High School stands out as a leader in this continuous improvement work. To enable data visibility at his school, Dean of Students Daniel Falcucci initiated a monthly newsletter updating his team on Grade 9 progress, interventions, supports, and best practices. This approach enhances data visibility, aiding the team in setting and achieving goals. Burncoat’s Grade 9 team meetings now prioritize reviewing on-track student data, complemented by on-track conferences championed by the Guidance team, providing students with a clear understanding of their on-track status.

“It takes time to gain momentum; this work is hard,” says Falcucci. “That doesn’t mean that it isn’t working and the data visibility allows you to notice the small gains on the way to drastic change. The data is helping to build the evidence that this is working.”

Condition #3: Teaming Structures

RISE’s philosophy for establishing effective Grade 9 data teams is rooted in three “Ps” – people, protocols and planning, and purpose. In successful teams, educators are guided by proactive structures in sharing their unique perspectives on working with a common set of students. They stay grounded in their purpose and create solutions-oriented spaces to advance shared student outcome goals. 

To provide a firsthand view into effective teaming structures, RISE and core Network partner East Hartford High School (EHHS) hosted a site visit for FFN schools this past fall. Participants from all 18 FFN schools attended, engaging in various in-depth experiences with EHHS administrators, educators, and students. Participants observed on-track data teams in action and explored the school’s Grade 9 culture to understand key strategies, their rationale, and their impact.

This site visit was key in the FFN arc of learning for 2023-24, especially considering that seven out of 18 FFN schools had explicitly named teaming as their area of focus for this year. School teams left feeling confident and motivated and used this forward momentum to launch new programming. For example, South High School in Worcester launched on-track conferences for 9th-graders; Waterbury High School held a professional development session to reimagine their summer bridge program; and Wilby High School, also in Waterbury, took the lead in presenting about their new teaming structures at an FFN leadership summit in January. 

“I enjoyed seeing the RISE model fully implemented in a school,” said Angie Giancola, On-Track Facilitator at Salem High School. Edward Walker, Dean of Students at Worcester Tech High School, agreed, saying, “This was an effective and informative day; I’ll be going home with great insights and new ideas.”

Condition #4: Prioritization of Grade 9

The key reason for prioritizing Grade 9 is grounded in research around the predictive power of students’ performance in the first year of high school for their chances of graduating. Grade 9 teams must reinforce the “why” behind focusing on freshmen success. This can come in many forms, including communication to share key messages with staff, students, and families about how important Grade 9 is; allocating resources to provide specialized structures and supports in freshman year; and ensuring that the educators who teach, counsel, and support freshmen appreciate the uniqueness and importance of that responsibility. When this all comes together, Grade 9 can be a place where schools are at their most innovative and nimble. 

One particular success story in this area can be seen at Norwich High School in upstate New York. RISE’s relationship with Norwich began with a single site visit, evolved into a one-year virtual coaching partnership, and grew further still into their participation in the FFN and adoption of the RISE Data Hub. Norwich chose prioritization of Grade 9 as their current goal, most specifically focusing on allocating resources to ensure that adequate capacity is dedicated to supporting the Grade 9 transition. 

Among their efforts, the Norwich 9th Grade Academy team reworked their schedule to organize family conferences for a prioritized group of Tier III students after the first marking period to surface areas of focus, and leadership is seeking to understand the possible budgetary needs associated with expanded 9th Grade Academy programming to create a robust proposal for increased resourcing in 2024-25.

And the results are clear. In their first year of participation in the FFN, Norwich set their sights high with an on-track rate goal of 90 percent and have already exceeded that goal with a rate of 98 percent. 

“Norwich City School District’s partnership with the RISE Network started with a desire and a belief; a desire to do better for our incoming 9th-grade students and a belief that we are stronger when collaborative,” said Scott Ryan, NCSD Superintendent. “Our work with the RISE Network has not only elevated our practice, but it has expanded our network of support with people who share in a vision that ALL kids can achieve!”

Condition #5: Defined Leadership

Grade 9 work is led by assistant principals, counselors, team leaders, and teachers, each of whom is an expert in their role and plays a pivotal role in the team’s success. At their best, these leaders have the power to realize the conditions for success in their schools.

At a recent leadership summit, FFN members conducted a leadership inventory, assessing leadership roles within their schools and focusing on the distribution of responsibilities to lead a successful Grade 9 on-track effort. Within the Network, there are various Grade 9 leadership models in place and RISE collaborates with each school to ensure that they are all tailored to most effectively support Grade 9 students.

At Portland High School (Portland, ME), Freshman Lead Teacher David Levasseur spearheads Grade 9 on-track efforts. Throughout the 2023-24 school year, Levasseur has conducted student-focused and action-oriented Early Warning Indicator (EWI) meetings for all three of Portland’s Grade 9 teams. The distributed leadership structure at Portland allows the Grade 9 teams to focus on student progress during EWI meetings, with Levasseur leading on-track communication efforts with students and families and monitoring Grade 9 on-track data in partnership with the assistant principal. The efforts of Levasseur and his team have yielded impressive results, as their students have maintained an on-track rate of around 80 percent, meeting the school’s goal. 

What’s Next?

The Freshman Focus Network’s arc of learning will culminate in an in-person showcase in May, which we will feature in a later blog. In the meantime, Freshman Focus Network schools continue to center their work in data and monitor progress with student on-track rates, which are already showing improvement. In partnership with RISE and other schools, the FFN is actively learning and implementing new ideas that are helping them build community and strengthen their Grade 9 work and student outcomes.

Get Involved

Summertime Grade 9 Professional Development

For the third straight year, RISE will host the Grade 9 Summer Symposium for educators across the region, on June 24-25 at the Delamar in West Hartford. The two-day conference features panels, workshops, and sessions that highlight the urgent need for strong Grade 9 on-track structures; illustrate strategies that work; and provide supported planning time for teams. More information is available here, and this blog post following last year’s Symposium provides a window into the 2023 event and a sampling of participant feedback. 

Leaders interested in learning more or registering a team can email Sam Purdy, RISE Director of Engagement, or complete this form. There are 120 spaces available and seats are filling up fast so be sure to claim your seats today!

2024-25 Grade 9 On-Track Coaching and Professional Development

RISE is currently enrolling schools in next year’s Freshman Focus Network. We are aiming to bring together nearly two dozen schools dedicated to Grade 9 improvement in next year’s FFN. If you are interested in exploring how your school or district can get involved in this exciting movement, please reach out to Peter Lorinser, RISE Engagement Manager.