Engaging Instruction Is Key to Freshman Success

It really does always come back to the classroom and the teacher.

We talk about a lot of things when we look at success in school and they all are very important.  The most important, though, is what happens in the classroom, and the relationship between teacher and student.

This week, Principal Matters! has been highlighting the Freshman Experience.  We’ve looked at the four pillars of building an effective ninth-grade program:  Design, Support, Culture, and today Instruction. 


Here’s a look at ten highlights of an effective ninth-grade instructional program that defines and guides academic success. 

  1. Instructional Strategies that work for ninth-graders  We need teachers who like ninth-graders to be the ones who teach them.  It really matters.  Beyond that, we need teachers who employ instructional strategies that are going to support the learning styles of freshmen.  We need to change what we do to fit them, not the other way around.  Too often, we want freshmen to “learn to adapt” to our way of doing things.  What if we met them where they are?  More than anything, if teachers of ninth-graders are leading engaging, hands-on, active learning that encourages creativity, curiosity, and creation students are going to do well.  Build an exciting classroom experience and you’ll have learning happen and students will succeed.  That simple.
  2. Homework  If making “zeroes” on homework takes freshman students down a path that leaves them failing classes, and by failing those classes they end up dropping out of school and not graduating, then those homework assignments must be really really important!  So, we can debate homework at another time.  It has its place, but it really doesn’t need to be the determining factor for a young person’s financial destiny.  Again, that would have to be some really important homework to do that!  Instead, what if you insisted that students complete the work rather than give them a ‘0’   More on this later, but think about the value of zeroes vs. “Not Yet” or “Missing.”  Is it really about the work and about the learning?  Then the grade book should reflect so.
  3. Academic Rigor  Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Not too hot; not too cold; just right.  We should be focused on a continual quest for ‘just right’ in the level of work we ask our ninth-grade students to do.  We should always be stretching their reach, getting them to do more than they’d done on their most recent attempt but not as much as they will do on the one to follow.  The level of rigor should be differentiated for the student, but the culture of the Freshman Experience should be on having serious students doing quality work.
  4. Study Skills; Organizational Skills  Your freshman program can be enhanced with the addition of instruction on organization and in how to study.  These are best done, in my opinion, as a part of the work you do in your academic courses rather than as a separate event.  Imagine the powerful learning that takes place when all the academic teachers are focused on the same note-taking skills on the same day.  Learning in context like that?  It can help your freshmen become excellent students.  Organization is also an area in which many ninth-graders struggle.  Rather than their disorganization adversely affect their grades, what if we spent time working with them to become more organized?  We can use the Freshman Year as a months-long orientation into the skills of a good student.  Wouldn’t that be valuable?
  5. Life Skills; School Survival Skills  We can help our ninth-grade students become more successful academically if we help them with direct, explicit direction and support in areas critical to surviving school.  How to get along with others? How credits work?  What to do if you miss an assignment?  Where things are?  Taking time to process through the concrete pieces of one of life’s most angst-filled transitions?  That’s time well spent.
  6. Developing Appropriate School Behaviors  We need to instruct our ninth-graders in what is okay and what isn’t.  Getting some of the upperclassmen to lead the instruction in small groups would be very impactful.  Sometimes they don’t know.. what they don’t know.  Being intentional is always a good thing.
  7. Successful Strategies to lead ninth-graders to do quality work  As part of your instructional strategy for the ninth grade, what will you do to move your students out of the mindset of compliance and into one of personal pride in performance?  How can you leverage their peer relationships to support an overall culture of excellence in academics?  How will you connect your freshmen to their peers in other places to help them see a broader picture of the world?
  8. Project-Based Learning  If you want active instruction, focus on learning that ends with a presentation, a product, a performance, or a publication (publishing to a blog or YouTube, for example).  If we can hook students when they’re in the ninth-grade, we stand a greater chance of keeping them moving forward academically throughout their high school years.  If we bore them to sleep with what looks like a remake from the Economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  That’s on us.  Let’s reshape learning with engaging assignments and tasks that mean something.
  9. Using Data to Design Delivery   Instructionally, we need to use data to design what we do.  Too often, ninth-grade becomes a place of sorting and separating.  We roll out an instructional program and figure that some students will make it and others won’t. That’s not good enough.  We need to track progress, use what we find to drive what we do, and shape our work to meet our students’ needs.
  10. Grading and Growth  Our goal at the Freshman Academies that I was a part of was pretty simple, instructionally.  Every student pass every class.  What does it mean to ‘pass a class’?  We focused on mastery of the standards, which meant that our grades reflected both growth and learning.  During freshman year, if we can work to get our students in the right habits of learning we will have done a good thing.  If they’re almost 1/3 of the way to a diploma while we do it?  That’s even better.




What Is The Culture Around Freshmen at Your School? (And Why It Matters)

What kind of reception do the freshmen get at your school?  Are they looked at with great anticipation?  Are they welcomed with open arms?  What effort do you make to help them have a smooth transition?

We’ve been looking at ninth-graders this week, but if you work at a different grade band, you can translate these concepts to the students who are entering your school for the first time just as easily.

There are four pillars in developing an effective program for students who are entering your school as the “new class,” and in this example coming to high school for the first time as ninth-graders.  Earlier this week, the focus was on the design of the freshman year, then a look at support system for ninth-graders.  The final conversation is about instruction, but before that, take a look at the culture of your school as it relates to the ninth grade.


innovative space

Below, you’ll find a framework for this examination:

  1. Climate (A Place Designed For Them)  If you want freshmen to be successful, make a commitment to design a place that works for them.  Build a climate that is conducive to learning and growing.  Many schools just roll the freshmen into high school without much intentionality.  That is one of the reasons that freshman failure is so high.  If you instead work to set a climate that makes students feel welcome, you’ll be well on the way to leading more of your freshmen to a successful year.  How they feel drives how they think; how they think determines how they act; how they act consistently over time determines their level of success.
  2. Culture (Culture of the school; freshman experience; and individual classrooms)  Is Freshman Year an initiation or an invitation?  What are the beliefs of the people at your school about ninth-graders?  As the leader, one of your tasks is to help shape the beliefs of the school. What do you want your teachers to believe about freshmen?  What do you want them to believe about the transition of ninth-graders into the school?
  3. Getting Involved in the life of the school  Students who are involved do better in school, earn credits more easily, and have better attendance and fewer behavioral incidents.  Getting involved is important, especially for students just arriving at the school.  Connections lead to confidence and confidence is the key to success.  If your school’s culture is to involve the freshmen in school-level activities, you’ll see more of your freshmen connected.
  4. Legacy work: Freshmen adopted by the upperclassmen   What if you connect your upperclassmen to your freshmen?  What about a system of mentors to welcome the freshmen?  Freshmen assimilate well to ninth-grade when they’re made to feel like they’re welcome.  Upperclassmen can be a part of the welcoming committee to bring the new freshmen into the school family.  They can be a great resource.
  5. Service  Want to bring all of your ninth-graders together?  Have a mission. Have a cause. Do something for someone.  Service is one of the very best things we have to offer at school.  It brings people together.  If it’s part of your culture, it’ll be a way to get students connected to each other and to the school.
  6. Leadership  A great way to build a positive culture in the ninth-grade is to have a focus on student leadership.  Take time to teach leadership.  If your students focus on being strong leaders, they’ll be less likely to engage in negative behaviors.  Don’t just ask for compliance; ask for excellence.  An emphasis on learning and using leadership skills is a great way to build your school.
  7. Focus on the Future  What’s the emphasis for your freshmen teachers?  Are they focus on where your students are going?  If there’s a focus on the future, we are able to put a plan in place to connect the dots from today to a point in the future.  (graduation, more school, career)  Looking back isn’t the best path to success.  It is instead to look forward.
  8. Team Building  If your ninth-grade culture is focused on working together and on collaboration, you’ll be able to bring your teachers, your students, and your school together to work on a common goal.  Much of building a successful freshman year is developing a culture of team, and then setting off to build and nurture those teams.
  9. Motivation and Incentives  Unfortunately, many high schools have a punitive culture at their schools, particularly in the ninth-grade.  These schools go over all of the rules the first day of school.  They focus on negative behaviors.  Schools that are more progressive focus on positive behaviors.  They are able to get more consistently appropriate behaviors by supporting those who do what they’re supposed to do.  Incentives can be a big part of the Freshman Experience.  They are most effective if based on short time frames.  (anything longer than two weeks can be a challenge)
  10. Teacher Collaboration  A positive culture for students is most likely preceded by a culture of collaboration on the part of the teachers.  If teacher collaboration is a core belief of the school, that same spirit will spread to the students and support them in their team building.  If teachers aren’t collaborating with each other, the culture for students is unlikely to be any different.

What kind of freshman culture does your school need in order for your ninth-graders to be successful?  What do your school’s beliefs say about freshmen?  What will you do as the leader to build and nurture an effective culture for your freshmen?

If you can get the first year at a school ‘right,’ the remainder of the years at the school go relatively easy.  If you get it wrong?  It’s a good bit harder the rest of the way through.

Get in front.  Adopt a culture for your Freshmen that leads them to success.



Support: Pillar of School Success

This week, we’ve been looking at how to develop a successful program for ninth-graders.  While the focus has been on the freshmen, if you don’t work in a high school don’t feel like you’re left out of this conversation:  the same efforts can support your work at any grade band.

Yesterday, we looked at the importance of designing your school for success.  Some schools are built for student engagement and success while others don’t quite get there.

The second pillar of success for a ninth-grade program is Supporting Students In Their Journey to Success.

So, let’s say you design and roll out the best of programs for the ninth grade, a Freshman Academy.  You do it the right way with interdisciplinary teams of teachers, exclusively dedicated to working with groups of ninth grade students. Let’s say that you find a space in your school.. a wing, a building, a portion of the campus to house your students and teachers.  You have the framework, the design, of what your ninth-graders need to be successful.

If, even with those resources, you don’t fully support students according to their needs, your outcomes will fall short of what you had intended.  To really transform what you do to serve your ninth-grade students, you need to have a place, have a team of teachers, and then build ongoing systems of support to help the students reach their goals. 

IMG_4966What does that support look like?  Here is a list of ten things to focus on to effectively support students in their journey to success.

  1. Understanding the needs of individual students:   This is the foundation of all of the work.  We need to know our students, know what they need, and get it for them.  If you try to package a one-size-fits-all approach to your ninth-grade students, you will find that one-size often fits none!  Support begins with a needs assessment, and this is only reached through relationships.
  2. Academic Enhancement (Extended Learning Time)  Nearly every school has some form or “Extended Learning Time.”  You can call it what you’d like:  Tiger Time, ELT, Academic Enhancement.  If you want to make a difference in the academic lives of your students, you’ll need to make their progress a priority by setting aside time during the day for academic assistance.  If time is constant, learning will be variable; if we instead make time variable, we can meet the standards of learning we seek.
  3. Advisory (Strategic Planning for Graduation)  A thriving advisory program that addresses topics from freshman transition to how credits work is essential.  Longer topic for another time, but if you don’t have a noteworthy advisory program for your ninth grade students, you have some work to do.
  4. Counseling Support  Freshmen need a counselor who understands them, wants to support them, and is proactive in their development.
  5. CAB (Caring Adult in the Building)  Every ninth-grade student (and all of the other grades too!) needs at least one caring adult in the building.  They all need someone they can trust, rely on, and who will support them in their progress.   If everything else is great but students don’t think their teachers care about them, all of this work is really not going anywhere.  It REALLY does come down to teachers and their relationships with their students.
  6. Roots and Wings  Our work with ninth-graders is important in helping them establish themselves as a part of the school.  We want to build a special place for them, but we also always want it to be a transitional part into a great overall experience.
  7. Love for Learning  While there are SO many things that are important in developing a successful transition for our students as they enter high school, none is more important than what happens on a daily basis in the classroom.  In short, if teachers love learning, and their love for learning is contagious, then our freshmen will engage into work in a meaningful way.  If we can have our students finish the ninth-grade with a pocketful of credits and a love for learning, we will have created a wining foundation for school.
  8. Balance: A Just-Right Approach for Freshmen Students  Freshmen are different than Seniors.  I’m guessing you already know that, but they are actually very different. We need to treat them differently.  Too often, we’d like to have “ready-made” students join us in the ninth grade.  That doesn’t always happen. We need to focus on balance and spend time with our students to strike the right balance.
  9. The Administrator’s Role  A big part of supporting your freshman students is having an administrator who is dedicated to working with them as her/his primary job.  Having an administrator who is “embedded” with the Freshmen is critical in having a successful program.
  10. Professional Development of the Teachers  As mentioned earlier, teaching freshmen is different than teaching seniors.  Your teachers need professional learning as you begin a Freshman Academy, but it also needs to be ongoing.



Designing Your School For Success

Schools, as well as other organizations, usually produce outcomes based on their design.  Have you given much thought to that proposition?  The results you’re getting relate to the design of your school.  If you are successful, it’s not an accident.  If you’re not getting the outcomes you are after, maybe you need to make some changes to your design.  Granted there are many things that contribute to the level of success at your school, but design is one that can most easily be adjusted by you.

Here’s an example:  At a high school, success is measured in great part by the number of students who graduate. When a student drops out of school without earning a diploma, one of the chief reasons they may do so is that they don’t like school.  When we work to engineer schools of success, we have to look at our practices to determine if they match up with our desired results.

If we want more students to graduate, we need a school full of adults who like being around young people, who know how to engage them meaningfully in work, and who are willing to shape the design of their classroom and their work to meet their students’ needs.

design school

A great place to begin in fine-tuning your school’s design is with the first grade students reach when they come to your school.  It’s there that the stage is set for the remainder of their work with you.  If they get off to a great start, things most typically go well.  The first year at a school is a predictor of performance throughout a student’s experience there.

Back to the high school example, let’s look at ninth grade.  So many high schools haven’t designed for success in the ninth grade.  In fact, it looks like they have built a structure for the opposite!

Why do we have the design we have?  Much of what happens in schools does so because it’s what’s been done before, it’s what teachers saw when they were students or even its how they were taught as beginning teachers.  We haven’t meant to have a design contrary to success, but in many places we do.

What do ninth-graders need?  A nurturing school experience that accounts for their transition to high school and works with them as they learn how to navigate high school and high school level work.  They need to not get lost in the size of the school.  They need to learn how to be good students, not be singled out for not having figured it out already.  They need lessons on organization, study skills, getting along with others.   They need space to grow in where their mistakes are a part of the growing experience not a never-ending spiral of failures.

Ninth-grade students need to pass all of their classes. When they do, they are exponentially more likely to graduate than their counterparts who fail multiple classes.

Is your school designed for its primary goal?  Many high schools continue to have high failures in ninth-grade.  Why do they fail?  Most usually, it’s the math that gets them.  No, not mathematics the course, but the math of “grading” policies.  A freshman who gets a lot of zeros for not turning in homework or other assignments may know just as much as another student who is passing the class, but the math will always get them.

Can you redesign your school to build systems where students are driven to get work accomplished and avoid a bad start to ninth-grade?  Do your teachers work together for the common good of all of their students in all that they do, not just how well they do in their particular class?

Design it.  You know the particulars of your school and what you need to focus on.  Find it and do it!  Design for success; don’t let your school design be left to chance.  Don’t let it be random.  Ask yourself this:  what can we change in the ways we operate the school that would lead to more student success? 




This week at Principal Matters! we are examining the four pillars of the Freshman Experience: 1) design; 2) support; 3) culture; and 4) instruction.  While the view this week is through the lens of Freshman Academy and the ninth-grade experience, the conversation is pertinent regardless of the grade band.

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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