Ninth Grade Counts - Times change, but the high-school yearning to belong remains (The Oregonian, August 3, 2013)

Posted on August 4, 2013 in Media Coverage

Read the story below and here.

By Susan Nielson

I remember every rumor about the first day of high school. New  freshmen would be duct-taped to flag poles and stuffed into lockers. Our clothes would be stolen during PE, and our heads would  be dunked into toilet bowls (ruining our giant ’80s hair) if we dared to enter the restroom.

Hairstyles and demographics have changed since then, but the rumor mill  is intact, as a recent trip to Gresham High School suggests. Students  still hear crazy things about lockers, and they still worry about  getting lost or outed as losers. The difference is that many places in Oregon are growing savvier about the start of high school, and they’re trying to help more students on the margins feel  like they fit in.

This is brilliant, not just as an academic strategy, but as a humane way to address the stress of being 14 and leaving middle school for the big leagues.

“They just don’t believe they belong,” says Gresham-Barlow  Superintendent Jim Schlachter, who learned a thing or two about  adolescent angst as a middle school principal. When teenagers feel like  part of a community and when they have a sense of competence, they can do anything, he says.

When they don’t, he adds, “the odds of them making it through high school are really not good.”

I visited a summer program last week for about 40 Gresham-Barlow  students whose academic or behavior troubles in middle school point to a higher dropout risk. This four-week program is one of several in the  metro area that let students earn credit, brush up on math and English, learn freshman survival tips, dabble in some  enrichment classes and eat healthy meals.

From a distance, these programs look like traditional remedial classes  to keep kids out of trouble. Up close, they reflect the state’s  intensifying focus on incoming freshmen: The transition from middle to  high school is one of the weakest links in the K-12 chain, so school districts hope to give at-risk students a leg up long  before they’re officially due to arrive on campus.

“I wanted to do something. Also, my mom kind of made me,” says Cassie  Fuentes-Munoz, 14, an incoming Gresham High student who is determined to overcome her eighth-grade slump. She says her confidence about starting high school has doubled since taking summer classes where she can see old friends and make new ones (and also re-learn how to solve for x).

Her summer classmate Jose Carrasco Martinez, 15, agrees. He says he got  into a lot of trouble in sixth grade, smoothed things out in seventh and then “worked his butt off” in eighth. Now he’s gearing up to be a  Barlow Bruin this fall, and he’s excited about trying out for sports.

His turnaround was self-motivated, he says: “There was no one to help me out. It was just me.”

Schlachter, the superintendent, says middle school can feel very  isolating to students even when they have a lot of support at school and home. Their world shrinks to the 18 inches in front of their face, he  says, as they sort out their identity. Emerging from that bubble and moving to high school can be rocky for all teenagers,  including those with good grades and a strong sense of community.

Teenagers without those advantages can get lost and stay that way. Maybe they don’t know how to seek help or manage their freedom, or maybe they can’t find anyone to sit with at lunch. Whatever the reasons, a bad  freshman year can have a lifetime of consequences.

I often lose my bearings in the jargon of education, with all of the  gobbledygook about common core and proficiency and academic priority. I  forget that we’re talking about teenagers in all of their messy,  immature, capable, hopeful glory. I also forget that teenagers are fundamentally the same, even as schools grow more diverse and often poorer.

Just like always, kids need adults to prepare them for what’s next.  Sometimes that means intense math and English classes in the middle of  summer. Sometimes it means assurance that no, the boiler room at high  school is not where they boil people.

But always, it means helping teenagers feel confident they will survive  the first day of school — and yes, of course, they belong.