Freshman Success: Strong Start, Successful Finish

Why do students dropout of school?  The research of the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) reveals that it’s not just one thing, but typically a combination of factors that lead a student to that life-changing decision.

One of the most effective practices to “stop the drop” and reverse the effect of those factors is a successful freshman year.  If you get off to a strong start, you’re much more likely to have a successful finish. Ninth-grade success most typically leads to graduation; on the other hand, a freshman year full of absences, behavioral issues, and failed classes can lead to dropping out.

If we know that (and we do), what can we do differently to help freshmen get off to a good start?  One exemplary practice is the establishment of a Freshman Academy.   It was my privilege to be a part of starting a Freshman Academy (FA) at two different schools.  It’s also been a privilege to support the work of others in developing their FAs.  When given the necessary resources and structures, a Freshman Academy can be a powerful tool in leading to the success of ninth-grade students.  As we’ve already mentioned, if you get off to a good start, you are usually on the route to graduation, not withdrawal papers.

Just like everything else in schools, things can be different from one school to another.  Even so, there are some elements that make the success that you’re looking for more likely.  Here are the four pillars that make for a good Freshman program.

  1.  Designing Your School for Success;
  2. Supporting Your Students in Their Journey to Success;
  3. School Culture That Fosters Success;
  4. Instruction That Guides Academic Success

welcome freshmen

Truth be told, those same four pillars can lead to success in any school configuration, not just Freshman Academy.  For the purpose of this column, we’ll view them from that lens.

Design:   A Freshman Academy is designed to help transition students into the high school  through a structure that combines the heart of the elementary school, the teaming of middle school and the academic rigor of high school all in one place.  The best configuration of at Freshman Academy?  A separate wing or building on campus with the rest of the high school.  An essential?  Teachers whose class schedules are exclusively dedicated to teaching ninth graders.

Support:  Why do ninth-grade students fail classes? A number of reasons, including these:  1) they get behind in classes through missing assignments and can never catch up; 2)  they’re disorganized (due to lack of experience, due to puberty, due to distractions of being at a different school); 3)  they lack the support systems necessary to assist in the more rigorous work of high school.  It’s not enough to use ninth grade to sort and separate those who are ready and those who aren’t;  if that’s all we’re doing we could get that accomplished in two weeks!  What ninth grade needs to be is a time that we provide enough of the right support to help them get through the year better prepared, more experienced, and with a pocketful of credits towards graduation.  We should gladly give the support to make this happen.

Culture:  If your culture is to use the freshman year as initiation and to weed out the ones who don’t like school, aren’t as good at school, or aren’t performing as well in school, congratulations!  You will be able to easily weed them out, run them off, get them on the path to dropping out.  If you don’t have that as your desired outcome, you have to have a different culture.  If your culture towards freshmen is the same as the US Marines… never leave anyone on the field… then you will have unprecedented success.  That’s a question to begin with as you examine your work with freshmen… what IS your school’s culture in regards to freshmen?  

Instruction:  We need for students to have a full complement of units as they leave the ninth grade, but we don’t need to just hand them over without the student having achieved in the classroom.  Our instructional expectations need to remain high without creating a system that promotes failure.  Do you know how to do that?  Do your teachers know how to do that?  What are the skills as a student that you are teaching in the ninth grade?  If you aren’t happy with their “skills as a learner” when they arrive, what are you doing about in the ninth grade?

So, more to come this week on freshmen, building a Freshman Academy, and helping our students get off to a successful start.  Come back this week and we’ll break down each of those four categories.  If you are a regular reader of Principal Matters! not working at a high school, don’t skip out this week;  you’ll most likely find that the principles discussed in building a FA are things you can use where you are too.  You don’t get off with an excused absence this week!

Thanks for your work! See you back here tomorrow.





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