RISE’s Foundational Conditions for Grade 9 Success: Prioritization of Grade 9

Conditions for Grade 9 SuccessGrade 9 SuccessRISE by 5 Strategies

Among those of us who partner with school and district teams to establish and fortify the Grade 9 conditions for success we’re exploring in this blog series, we discuss and debate whether the conditions should be thought of and developed sequentially. Earlier this year, a group of us engaged in a bit of a thought experiment and organized the conditions in a logical order, comparing notes on how we saw the conditions stacking up. There was healthy disagreement, for instance around whether Defined Leadership should necessarily precede Teaming Structures, and whether Data Visibility could be developed prior to the establishment of an On-Track Definition. Prioritization of Grade 9 was the one condition about which there was virtually no argument; everyone who took part had it first on his or her list. 

There is no dissonance, though, in having the post exploring this top-of-the-list condition come fourth in our series, just past the midpoint of the school year. At least as much as any of the other conditions, if not most of all, Prioritization of Grade 9 requires continuous monitoring, reflection, and tweaking to be maintained. And specifically, prioritizing Grade 9 has implications for resource allocation, communication, and people and empowerment.

Prioritization as communication

It cannot be stated enough that the reason for prioritizing Grade 9 is the research basis around the predictive power of students’ performance in the first year of high school for their chances of graduating. It is important that leaders and all involved in Grade 9 efforts reinforce the “why” behind flooding freshmen with support and treating that first year of high school differently from the other three. This can take the form of building knowledge and understanding of the research in staff professional development settings and using multiple forms of staff- and family-facing communication to share key messages about just how important Grade 9 is. Often, this works against commonly-held beliefs about the fanfare-filled 12th grade, or the importance of academic performance in 11th grade for college admissions. While taking nothing away from the critical importance of well-designed structures and high-quality instruction in the upper grades, effectively establishing Grade 9 as a priority starts with using both national research and local data and stories to consistently make the case that students’ success in high school in many ways rests on their first year. A school or district with this condition well established will reflect broad buy-in in Grade 9, shown in a wide range of stakeholders playing a role in supporting the transition.

Prioritization as resource allocation

True prioritization of Grade 9 is about walking the walk, not just communicating the right messages – and this begins with how resources are allocated to provide specialized structures and supports in the freshman year. Consider specifically the teaming structure, unique student-facing programming, and dedicated roles for Grade 9 staff. 

Aligning teacher and student schedules to enable Grade 9 teaming helps provide for greater adult monitoring of student progress and engagement than the traditional high school structure enables. This represents a decision about how the school allocates the resources of personnel and staff time, and opting for a model that prioritizes high-touch support for and oversight of Grade 9 students is a key way schools demonstrate that the Grade 9 transition is a core priority. Putting resourcing behind Grade 9-specific programming such as summer bridge and peer mentorship is another avenue that elevates the importance of the freshman year strategy, in addition to meaningfully helping students to successfully enter high school and navigate new expectations and challenges. 

Assigning an administrator whose primary responsibility is oversight of Grade 9 is also a key staffing-related prioritization move (and one that will be explored in a future blog post). Additionally, schools can dedicate specific counselors and support staff to specifically serve the freshman class, lowering the student-to-educator ratio for Grade 9 students. Both unique Grade 9 programming and allocation of staff can be tailored in ways that target specific students identified using data. For example, the on-track coach role is designed to serve incoming students whose middle school performance would indicate a higher likelihood of experiencing difficulty in the transition to high school.

Prioritization as people and empowerment

Perhaps most significantly, leaders can prioritize Grade 9 by ensuring that the educators who teach, counsel, and support freshmen appreciate the uniqueness and importance of that responsibility – and are outstanding in their roles. One RISE partner district, when reorganizing their high schools to prioritize Grade 9, partnered with union leaders to host a luncheon for teachers they wanted to consider shifting to work in Grade 9 based on the quality of their instructional practice and their embodiment of optimism and flexibility in working with students. Working with freshmen presents significant challenges, and in a context organized around supporting students to achieve success in Grade 9, educators likely need to be comfortable having their data under a microscope. But the teachers, counselors, and leaders who are tasked with this important work also must be empowered to be creative in how they pursue the desired outcomes for their students. 

When this all comes together, Grade 9 can be a place where schools are at their most innovative and nimble. Leaders who have dedicated time and resources to support collaboration, and who are empowered to be experimental in pursuit of improving outcomes for which they are held accountable, will try new things that may help reform approaches for the school at large. In RISE partner schools, extended day programming, family outreach efforts, equitable grading policies, and new instructional initiatives have been piloted in Grade 9 and, showing promise there, expanded across the high school. In this way, among others, prioritizing Grade 9 hardly comes at the expense of other grade levels. Investing in building strong Grade 9 systems and structures, not to mention improving outcomes for freshman students, can be the tide that lifts all boats in high schools.

Our Grade 9 Summer Symposium explains why we care so much about Grade 9 and underscores why it is the “make-or-break year” for students. We will be hosting our second annual Symposium in June 2023, and would love for you or members of your team to attend! Visit our website to learn more and to register. Also, we invite you to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to stay up-to-date on RISE news and events.