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Freshman Academies for New High School Students in Southeast Michigan

Ninth grade is a crucial year to academic success. But it's a tough time for teens, too. Discover what some educators are doing to try to help stop dropout rates.

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Do freshman academies help?

According to a 2007 study from the National High School Center, high schools with transition programs for freshmen had a dropout average of 8 percent, while the dropout rate of schools without these programs averaged 24 percent.

Beaulieu gave some raw figures to back up his freshman academy's effectiveness. The year before the program began, the freshman class had 220 suspensions. But during the next year – once the program was in place – the suspensions plummeted to 45 and held at that level the following year, he says.

Tardiness has also dropped by 85 percent, Beaulieu adds, and the rate of students who failed two or more of their core courses declined from 30 to 25 percent.

One student who has passed through the freshman academy says it has advantages and disadvantages. Tom Michalak, who graduated from Redford Union in 2011, remembered how the program helped him grow accustomed to high school by placing his classes next door to one another. However, he says he sometimes felt isolated from the rest of the school building and the older students.

"It kind of kept us secluded. It almost didn't even feel like we were in high school," he says. "They didn't let any upperclassmen in the hall at all."

Another school that has adopted a freshman academy program is Dearborn High School. Language arts teacher Susan Bernys says that freshmen who get good grades in their first year tend to continue to succeed in school and stay the course toward graduation.

"If we can get them to do one sport or activity the first semester, and they do decent in their classes, that's a success for us," she says.

Involvement and isolation

According to Bernys, Dearborn High School's freshman program begins with a parent/student meeting in February. Around the time of the August freshman orientation session, the school gathers juniors and seniors who earlier agreed to join the Link Crew, a project affiliated with the California-based Boomerang Project. Link Crew volunteers mentor the incoming freshmen while the latter get their schedules and meet faculty, Bernys says.

Early in the school year, the freshman class engages in social rituals. For instance, kids visit the football field and stand in a formation that represents the number of their graduating class year. Special events like a tailgate party and honor roll breakfast also promote camaraderie and make the school a "home away from home," she says.

"The more a student participates and has enthusiasm in their school, it's all the better they'll do in school," Bernys says. "It's the student population – it's not the building or how many facilities that you have."

Dearborn High School runs its ninth-grade academics through its freshman academy, which is based in a wing of the high school building. The wing houses the freshman lockers, and ninth-grade teachers are selected based on personality, so they can make the students feel more comfortable, she adds: "They're not totally coddling, but they're friendly and welcoming."

Bernys says the students learn their math, English and social studies in the freshman wing and spend the remainder of the day at lunch or in electives with the rest of the student population. By sophomore year, the students stay "out in the open," she says.

Ensuring future success

Although the freshmen are years away from grabbing their diplomas, Bernys says it is never too early to stress the importance of acing final exams. She says the Dearborn district offers tutoring sessions where teachers and National Honor Society members tutor freshmen before their finals. "We'll probably have about 100 freshmen participating in tutoring for final exam week," she says.

The Dearborn district also has a pre-emptive program in place to adjust potentially struggling eighth-graders to the realities of the high school classroom. She says an Early Start program gathers for 12 days in the summer, which lets kids meet their ninth-grade teachers, get acquainted with the building and learn key concepts on a subject they might see during the school year.

As an overseer of the freshman program, Bernys says she frequently contacts parents and emails teachers when she finds that students are struggling. For the most part, parents have been satisfied and happy with the program.

"We send out grades every three weeks, a progress report, if (anyone) gets a C-minus or below," she says.

Bernys says the freshman academy program started in the 2005 school year and has since proven itself in the data. During the 2004 school year, 34 percent of the freshman class had one or more E's on their report cards, and 16 percent had three or more E's. But by the end of the 2005 school year, only 24 percent of the freshman class had one or more E's. More recently, only about 17 percent of freshmen received an E, and only 9 percent earned three or more, she says.

The Dearborn and Redford Union high schools are not alone in taking early, aggressive efforts to direct high schoolers toward success.

Over at Warren Mott High School, counselor Patricia Bonnici says that her school also uses the Link Crew program and its team-building activities as part of a freshman outreach campaign. The school has study programs in place, too, such as its second semester pullout program for ninth-graders who fail two or more classes.

The intervention program takes place during the day, so it doesn't conflict with many freshmen's need to take the bus back home, she adds. "We took them out of one of their electives, met with them, tutored them (and) monitored their grades," she says.

However, Bonnici blames challenging times for changing how her school handles its ninth-grade needs. She says her school had a freshman academy for six years, but it no longer has one today.

She blames its end on the economy. "Every district in the state is under severe budget constraints," she says.

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