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New freshmen tap their inner autodidact

Ninth Grade Counts program eases entry into high school


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Icezick Batiste, 14, an incoming freshman at Wilson High School, takes a text break during a Ninth Grade Counts summer program at Robert Gray Middle School. Ben Hunter tries to teach his students not a bunch of facts, but how to learn on their own.

“Find yourselves a seat where you know you’ll be successful today,” he tells them as they walked in last Tuesday.

He then slips into “flight attendant mode,” as he calls it: “Put your seats in the upright position. Make sure your earbuds are safely stored away. And put your electronic devices in airplane mode or off.”

Four weeks into their summer school class, the students — all soon-to-be freshmen at Wilson High School — know the drill and cheerfully abide.

The skills they’ll learn from Hunter this year are part of Ninth Grade Counts, a Multnomah County-wide collaboration that aims to reduce high school dropout rates by giving incoming freshmen the academic and social skills they need to succeed in school and life.

“Today I’ll teach you the best way to fix your mistakes on paper in grammar and spelling,” Hunter tells his students last Tuesday, before asking them to define the word of the day, autodidact.

“It’s a learning strategy; everything you know, you teach yourself,” he says, breaking down the parts of the word and giving examples of how in college they won’t be reminded to turn their work in, they’ll just fail the class.

Ninth Grade Counts began five years ago as a public-private effort by the nonprofit All Hands Raised, in response to the dismal graduation rates across the region. The rate is now 64.7 percent, up 8 percentage points in the past two years but lower among students of color.

Ninth Grade Counts could remedy that. An August 2012 study of the program by the Northwest Evaluation Association showed that Ninth Grade Counts is working, by two measures: raising students’ attendance, and boosting their credit accumulation.

In particular, the report examined the performance of Academic Priority students, designated as such by having failed one or more core subjects in eighth grade; had 16 or more absences during eighth grade; or had low or very low benchmark scores in at least two subjects of their eighth-grade Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

Specifically, the report found:

• Academic Priority students who participated in Ninth Grade Counts were more on track to graduate than Academic Priority students who did not participate. “On track to graduate” means earning six or more credits as freshmen. They outperformed their peers who did not participate in Ninth Grade Counts by 12 percent.

• As for attendance, Ninth Grade Counts students showed up for school at a 2.4 percent higher rate, which held true for all racial groups.

“Cumulatively, these results may suggest the programs are having the desired impact on school engagement,” the NWEA report states. “Students who participate earn more credits and attend school at a higher rate, both of which are strong indicators of long-term success in high school and beyond.”

Refining, expanding program

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mustafa AlShemary and Max Turner face each other during sharing exercise in Ben Hunter's class. He teaches students how to learn, like quietly listening to others and calmly expressing ones own thoughts. In 2011, 58 percent of the Ninth Grade Counts students were Academic Priority, and 23 percent of all Academic Priority students in the six districts (Portland, Centennial, David Douglas, Gresham-Barlow, Parkrose and Reynolds) participated in Ninth Grade Counts.

The NWEA report recommends that Ninth Grade Counts should work to seek out those students rather than have them self-select.

Kara Carmosino, who oversees the program for All Hands Raised, says that effort is under way. She says middle school counselors throughout the six districts target them for recruitment, sometimes meeting with them individually to talk about their summer options.

“We have increased this coordination with schools, including getting feedback from counselors on the process earlier in the year, so this process is increasingly effective,” Carmosino says.

In five years, the program has expanded to 19 sites throughout the city and county. Each has a sponsor and an individual focus. Some offer more hands-on learning in the parks, on a road trip or overnight leadership academy; others are classroom based, with daily enrichment activities like field trips, skits, crafts, music or culture-specific lessons.

The costs are underwritten by the sponsors, which include the six school districts, TriMet (providing free bus passes for students); numerous nonprofits and major corporations like US Bank, Bank of America and Safeway.

Back in Hunter’s class, the students have called for a “text break.” Each class period, they get two 30-second breaks to send or read a quick text message on their phone, a privilege they negotiated as a class at the start of their Ninth Grade Counts session.

Hunter also has implemented what he calls his “norms,” a set of five standards he expects students to follow, including “stay focused,” “keep negative thoughts in your head” and “do not use racist, sexist, homophobic or derogatory language.”

He calls on a student to read the norms aloud at the start of each class. They then launch into what he calls A-B sharing. Students pair up, sit knee to knee and take turns talking for 30 seconds about a given topic. “Keep your hand down, your voice is calm and even, don’t nod or smile, just sit there and look them in the eye and listen,” Hunter instructs. The students are pros at it by now.

Money well-spent

The Wilson High program, sponsored by the Southwest Portland nonprofit Neighborhood House, is being held this summer at Robert Gray Middle School because of the roof work under way at Wilson.

Hunter Frances Hall, program manager for youth and family services at Neighborhood House, says her organization solicits foundation grants and private donors each year to sponsor Ninth Grade Counts, and has seen the rewards it’s reaped.

“For the Wilson cluster, people assume everything’s fine,” Hall says. But there are still pockets of poverty, a diverse community and not many resources in the area, she says.

Completion of the four-week session at Wilson earns them half a credit toward their high school studies. One other Ninth Grade Counts program, at the Native American Youth and Family Center, offers half a credit as well. The others are not for credit.

Program leaders say students don’t see the programs as summer school, necessarily, just something fun to do in the summer.

“It’s actually pretty cool,” says Icezick Baptiste, 14. “It’s pretty good for getting ahead.”

Last Tuesday morning, Icezick appreciated Hunter’s lesson on the word “autodidact,” something he can relate to.

“I’ve kind of been an autodidact all my life; my dad’s not with me so I taught myself how to play football and basketball,” he says.

Another student, Andrea Stone, 13, appreciates the field trip students just made to Willamette University in Salem. Andrea admits she’s “kind of nervous” about starting high school, but Ninth Grade Counts has given her a network of friends and some skills to boost her confidence.

As part of the program, teachers help students identify their strengths and weaknesses, and how to maximize their assets. They take pre- and post-assessments and starting this year, have begun following a set of seven “quality standards” that all Ninth Grade Counts programs had a hand in creating, so there are consistent measures of progress and evaluation across the board.

“I learned my weakness is math,” Andrea says. “But in Math Bingo, I won three times.”

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