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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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Little fish in a big pond. That's how a lot of kids feel when they walk through the doors of high school for the first time. Spooked by juniors and seniors who tower over them, they try to traverse a maze of halls in a school twice as big as their previous school, all while trying to handle the independence and responsibilities automatically foisted upon them now that they are "high school" students.

It's a sink or swim situation, and for many kids – too many – it's tough treading water. The U.S. Department of Education tracks high school dropout rates which, while improving slightly, remain a concern. Education Week's annual "Diplomas: Graduation by the Numbers" reports concerns, too – particularly for Latino children. (On the whole, though, from 1999 to 2009, it noticed a 7 percent rise in public-school graduation rates, hinting at some hope.) And the Alliance for Excellent Education puts Michigan rates at around 75 percent – meaning about a quarter of Michigan high schoolers don't graduate.

Many of those students drop out during or soon after their freshman year, notes the National High School Center in Washington, D.C., which says a student's ability to acclimate and academically achieve in freshman year is a telltale sign of her future academic success – in high school and beyond.

As a result, educators are now targeting freshman year, offering some "water wings," if you will, to give kids extra help making the transition to the high tides of high school. In some metro Detroit schools, this help is coming in the form of freshman academies.

What are freshman academies?

Freshman academies vary, but most include extra staff attention to students' fears, concerns and questions, plus upperclassmen peer programs. Some even segregate freshmen in a particular area of the school, so they don't have to be so overwhelmed with the size and scope of the larger high school.

At Redford Union High School, English teacher Steve Beaulieu says he has seen better student grades and attendance after a freshman academy was implemented for the class of 2011. He says the program sends a strong signal to freshmen: They can't afford to slack off on their class work.

"We are investing a great deal of time, effort and resources," he says. "Therefore, they have a tendency to take their education much more seriously."

Redford Union, like other Michigan schools, has to keep an eye on its students' performance in light of the federal government's Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks under No Child Left Behind.

Research shows most students send distress signals years before they drop out of school, according to the Michigan Department of Education. "In fact, key early warning signs displayed by students nearing or entering transitional school years," such as ninth grade, "have been proven to be strong dropout predictors," its website notes.

Beaulieu says local school districts serve their freshman in different ways. In the Utica School District, some of its high schools only serve grades 10-12, and many ninth-graders go to a junior high instead, he says.

At Redford Union, counselor Paulette Rancour says incoming ninth-graders get a taste of their new academic climate through a process that includes a special freshman night for students and parents.

In addition, older students play a role in helping the new students feel welcome. "We have our student government students give tours of the building, and we set up tables to boast different school activities in the cafeteria for the incoming freshman to get information about groups, organizations and athletics," she says.

Rancour says the freshman academy program is an effective bridge to high school life because it creates a more compact learning environment.

"We have a single hallway where their core classes and teachers are located," she says. "They have a separate lunch period, and they have teams of teachers who get to know them on a more personal level and have a common preparedness to discuss issues with courses and students."

Beaulieu says the ninth graders follow each other in between core classes and are kept apart from other grades. The school tests students' abilities right away, so struggling readers are placed in a supplemental English class. And teachers regularly call parents and stay in touch with them through emails, conferences and more, he explains.

Without the program, he says, new students might find the structure of high school life unfamiliar and overwhelming. "Students are creatures of habit," he says, "and while they would never admit it, they crave structure and predictability."

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