Ninth-Grade Counts' bridge keeps at-risk students in school
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Tedros Abraham (left), community engagement coordinator for the Portland Schools Foundation, talks with incoming David Douglas High School freshman Jose Santos about how he can get involved in school activities in the fall. The foundation's

Kelly Holboke's class might have been called: 'Everything I wish I knew on the first day of high school.'

During the past five weeks, the David Douglas High School teacher has dispensed pearls of wisdom to her incoming freshmen on such things as how to manage stress, how to make good decisions, how to apply for college and how to recover lost credits.

There was also handy logistical advice: where to eat lunch (one of two cafeterias for the 3,000-student school), how to join a club (and back out) and how to avoid being caught off guard at assemblies.

'When they say, 'freshmen,' yell really, really loud,' she instructed. 'There are more of you than anyone else. You should never lose a yelling contest.'

Students chuckled, then peppered her with more questions.

The high school transition class last Thursday morning called Ninth Grade Counts was one of 25 programs under way throughout Multnomah County this summer. Targeted at the county's most at-risk students, it aims to bridge the social and academic gap between middle and high school.

Just 57 percent of students in the county's six school districts graduate from high school in four years. That's the impetus for the big push to get kids engaged from the beginning.

'They all want to be a four-year (college) graduate,' Holboke says of her starry-eyed students. 'They're starting to connect the dots. What happens if you fail freshman-year English? That's what we're trying to do - have them take it seriously, so they don't blow off their freshman year.'

The nonprofit Portland Schools Foundation created Ninth Grade Counts with a pilot effort in 2008, based on their research that showed local students who fail a core course in ninth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

During the years, it's grown to a partnership between the city, county, six county school districts and two dozen local organizations including businesses and nonprofits.

A thousand students are participating this year, but not every student will have completed their program. For the past two years, the completion rate has hovered around 70 percent. That's something foundation leaders are working to boost.

'We're talking about the most disconnected students in our school system,' says Nate Waas Shull, a schools foundation community engagement coordinator.

'The fact that they registered for a program is awesome; it shows a sign of engagement. Some that show up for a couple days fall away - either because their family moves, (or they) get distracted by other things.'

When attendance drops off during the summer, it's 'not totally unexpected,' he says.

A third of the students enrolled in Ninth Grade Counts meet the county's definition of 'academic priority,' having one or more of three factors: scoring low or very low on two state benchmark tests in eighth grade, missing 15 days of school, or failing a core course in eighth grade.

Countywide, there are about 3,000 academic priority students, which mirrors the overall dropout rate.

Others who come to Ninth Grade Counts were referred by their teachers and counselors as needing an extra boost. Many are foster kids; some were enticed by the credit they're eligible for upon completion of the program.

Innovative teaching

Last Thursday, the students at David Douglas had an audience. A dozen or so funders and supporters of the program observed the classes in action, inspired by the learning they saw.

Terry Tyson, development director for the schools foundation, loved how she heard one student ask his teacher if 'Lord of the Flies' was a good book. She appreciated the teacher's response.

'She said, 'Well, the first part's slow, but if you can get through it, here's what happens,' ' and she outlined the plot, making sure to mention that 'all the adults die.'

'To see a student in a classroom in summer, in eighth grade, talking about 'Lord of the Flies' with his teacher, it's exciting,' Tyson said.

The learning at each Ninth Grade Counts site happens differently. David Douglas rotates students through homeroom, math and language arts each day. Other programs are based outdoors and consist of exploring the city and natural environment. Some are culture-specific. All include field trips to local businesses and colleges and universities.

Potential employers also make site visits to the students, talking about career opportunities and cheering on their efforts.

'There's going to be a lot of jobs out there on our company when you guys get out of college or high school, so think about that,' Portland General Electric Foundation President Carol Morse told students on a visit last Friday.

PGE is one of the major funders of Ninth Grade Counts, along with U.S. Bank, Qwest Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the city of Portland.

The city invests staff time and gave $100,000 last year to support to the foundation's work to address the graduation rate. TriMet provides free bus passes for each student.

Whitney Grubbs, assistant education policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber, was also impressed, but wants the program to be more than just an intervention for some students. She hopes the innovating teaching and learning practices can spill into the rest of the school year and become part of the operating culture in education.

Waas Shull said that's exactly the point. The program is indeed a test-ground for tangible learning experiences, he says, like learning how to write thank-you notes to a group they just visited.

He also noted that Ninth Grade Counts doesn't exist in isolation - it's part of an umbrella effort by the foundation called Cradle to Career, which aims to boost success for kids throughout their education.

David Wynde, who just ended two terms on the Portland School Board, also toured the program on behalf of his employer, U.S. Bank. He said he sees Ninth Grade Counts as a huge opportunity to empower kids in school and life.

'You've got these kids, not successful in eighth grade,' he says. 'If you can create an experience over the summer that takes these kids and starts them in high school with a credit … they have a sense of hope, optimism and confidence, which is not what they had before.'

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