RISE’s Freshman Focus Network Provides Actionable Strategies to Support Students Through the Grade 9 Transition 

Data Tools and PracticesGrade 9 SuccessNetwork Collaboration and Learning

Grade 9 on-track performance is positively correlated with on-time high school graduation and postsecondary access and success. Grounded in this evidence-based belief that ninth grade is truly a make-or-break year for students, RISE launched the Freshman Focus Network (FFN) during the 2022-23 school year. 

Through the Freshman Focus Network, RISE partners with schools and districts to strengthen structures, systems, and practices around the Grade 9 transition. Focusing on priority areas rooted in RISE’s Conditions for Grade 9 Success, the network includes a combination of supports for individual participant schools and for the network at large, through gatherings of educators for opportunities to learn, collaborate, and share best practices.

Karlyn Fitzpatrick, Assistant Principal at Kennedy H.S. in Waterbury, said that the Freshman Focus Network has enabled her to adapt resources provided by RISE and strategies used by other schools, which have been shared in coaching and community of practice sessions. “RISE brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, so I don’t need to reinvent the wheel and can focus on the work,” she said. As a result, she said her Grade 9 students have become more connected to teachers and administrators. “We struggled with this, coming out of COVID-19,” she said, “Through our renewed focus on relationship-building with 9th graders, we’ve developed an understanding of the importance of these relationships and have given the students a real sense of belonging.”

Daniel Falcucci, Dean of Students at Burncoat H.S. in Worcester, M.A., said his team has adopted many of the practices recommended by RISE. His team has instituted bi-weekly Grade 9 team meetings, utilizing the KidStat protocol; they have prioritized Grade 9, creating an on-track definition and tips to stay on-track; and they started an after-school program for freshmen that meets twice weekly. “As a result, we have seen significant increases in on-track rates from last year,” says Falucci. “The rates have increased as much as 14 percent in some quarters!”

Pamela Otunnu, Director of Secondary Academic Access and Outcomes at Portland Public Schools in Portland, M.E., said that the most impactful experience in the network last year was her district’s site visit to Platt High School in Meriden, CT. “We were able to see a school that has developed Grade 9 structures over the years and how their district has helped move forward efforts around data,” she said. “There were tangible takeaways; real things to start trying right away.”

“When I started working with RISE in 2018, we were a network of five schools, and my primary role was to support a specific high school,” says Peter Lorinser, RISE Engagement Manager and FFN lead. “Fast forward five years, and we’re now extending our reach to 18 new school communities in the Northeast through the Freshman Focus Network. Each school community we collaborate with is distinct, with its own unique strengths and challenges. It has been a truly rewarding experience to collaborate with them toward the common goal of enhancing their Grade 9 practices. It’s inspiring to witness how the work initiated by RISE in 2015 continues to flourish in new communities, positively impacting more students!” 

The yearlong FFN initiative culminated in RISE’s first-ever Freshman Focus Forum following the 2023 Grade 9 Symposium. At the Forum, 35 educators from five districts came together to celebrate the progress made throughout the year, reflect on implementation in 2022-23, and dedicate time to planning for continued advances in 2023-24.

Following a highly successful pilot year, RISE is now entering year two of the FFN, welcoming ten new schools in cohort two of the network. The Freshman Focus Network now encompasses a total of 18 schools across eight districts in four states, serving 6,770 Grade 9 students.

And year two is already off to a strong start. This fall, each partner school has already had a one-on-one coaching session with a dedicated RISE coach and these coaches are in the process of conducting site visits to each school. In early September, the FFN met for a virtual leadership summit focused on the importance and research behind Grade 9 on-track as a metric, as well as data visibility.

During the first virtual learning session of the year, which took place this October, the goal was for participants to clearly understand on-track data teams and develop the knowledge needed to initiate or improve data teams within their school communities. Participants learned about key practices, approaches, and data strategies from on-track data team leaders: Erin Lyons-Barton, Principal of Edison M.S., Kayla Walker, On-Track Coach at East Hartford HS, and Justin Taylor, Assistant Principal at Hartford Public H.S.

Building on all of this early momentum, the Freshman Focus Network is poised to engage in the full arc of learning for the rest of the 2023-24 academic year, including six more one-on-one coaching sessions with RISE, and a site visit to RISE partner East Hartford H.S. in November. The network will also gather virtually for collaborative learning sessions focused on on-track culture and engagement, targeted transitions, and defined leadership, culminating in an end-of-year showcase in May. Finally, the network will come together in person at the end of the school year for a full-day summit focused on the prioritization of Grade 9. 

This year, every member of the RISE Engagement team serves as a coach for at least one of the 18 schools in the Freshman Focus Network. “We meet regularly to exchange insights about the progress occurring in each school and to facilitate opportunities and resources for interconnecting our schools,” says Lorinser. “Engaging our entire team in FFN has proven to be an exciting way to elevate our support for the schools within our network.”

Learn more about RISE’s Engagement team, including the other partnerships they are building beyond the Freshman Focus Network, in another recent blog

Our Freshman Focus Network launches as a follow-on network opportunity from our Grade 9 Summer Symposium that occurs annually in late June. Click here to learn more and register! In the meantime, please feel free to reach out for an introductory conversation to learn more about how to be involved in this exciting, and growing, network of high schools throughout New England!