Freshmen who fail usually drop out

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Most dropouts leave during their second or third year of high school. Typically, though, their course is set much sooner, according to studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Students who fall behind in credits their freshman year are five times more likely to drop out than students who advance to sophomore standing and fail no more than one core course, the Consortium has found.

First made public a year ago, this correlation is now prompting action by the Chicago Board of Education.

Today, Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled a number of programs aimed at keeping more freshmen on track toward graduation. The district will offer four weeks of summer school for graduating 8th-graders who are slightly below grade level-not just for those in danger of repeating 8th grade. It will provide below-level freshmen with peer tutors. It will also expand summer school for high school students, especially freshmen, who need to recoup credits.

And as part of a previously announced initiative, the district will work with freshman algebra teachers to strengthen instruction.

Algebra is the most commonly failed course-34 percent of last year’s freshmen flunked the subject. “It becomes not only a filter out of mathematics-based careers, but out of school,” says Martin Gartzman, head of mathematics and science for the district.

The board’s heightened attention comes as the Consortium releases updated school-by-school reports aimed at spurring efforts to reduce freshman failure.

The reports allow elementary schools to see how their 8th-graders fared as freshmen at various high schools and whether they graduated. High schools can compare the success of students who entered from different elementary schools.

“That kind of information crossover is not available anywhere else,” notes Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education.

Called “the little people reports” for their use of paper-doll figures, the studies update similar ones released in 1999. The current reports track student progress from the 1997-98 school year through the 2001-02 school year.

The Consortium has mailed elementary school reports to principals and posted them on-line. It is in the process of distributing and posting high school reports. The reports contain a wealth of information-with 10 tables that break freshmen performance down by gender, elementary school and 8th-grade reading level, among other factors. Below are a couple of key tables and suggestions for using them.

School-by-school charts can be found on the Consortium’s web site.

Elementary schools

See if your “on-track” rate is improving.

Find Table 5 in your school report to see how your 8th-grade graduates fared during their freshman year of high school. The table shows the number of freshmen “on-track” or “off-track” each school year from 1997-98 through 2001-02. To see whether your on-track rate is improving, calculate the on-track percentage for each year by dividing the on-track number by the total number of students. This information is graphed in Figure 2 of your school report.

Compare the high schools your students attend.

Some high schools have more success at keeping students on-track than do others. Are you steering your 8th-graders towards their best options? Table 8 will let you compare the “on-track” records of your 2001 graduating students at the high schools they most commonly attend. High schools with higher admissions requirements tend to attract better-prepared students and will typically post higher on-track rates.

High schools

See if your “on-track” rate is improving.

Find Table 5 in your school report to see whether your freshman “on-track” rate is improving and how it compares to the district average of 51 percent for 2001-02.

Too many schools wait for freshmen to fail before they intervene, says Area 24 Instructional Officer Cynthia Barron, formerly principal of Jones College Prep. Instead, high schools need to identify at-risk freshmen before school starts and have supports ready, she explains.

Barron suggests flagging incoming freshmen who have low test scores, poor attendance or other difficulties reported by their elementary school counselors. To support them, each school needs a system that might include tutors, mentors or a special assistance team to closely monitor their progress.

“If we do a better job of putting those structures in place, then we won’t be turning around at the 10-week mark and saying, ‘My god, we have all these failures,'” she says.

Compare your feeder elementary schools.

Table 8 in your school report will show which elementary schools sent you the most freshmen in 2001-02 and the percentage of each school’s graduates who were on-track by the end of their freshman year.

High schools should increase efforts to communicate with feeder elementary schools having the lowest on-track rates, says Shazia Rafiullah Miller, lead author of the little people reports. “It’s easy to play the blame game,” she explains, “for a high school to say, ‘Well you need to send us better prepared kids’ and an elementary school to say, ‘You need to do a better job keeping our kids engaged.’ In the end, it’s got to come from both directions.”