Ninth graders improve, principal cites intensive effort and new strategies

On state test scores, Monroe School District kids tend to be average. Frank Wagner Elementary, with its large number of low income students and kids who come to school not yet fluent in English, consistently lags, but for the most part, local kids perform in the middle of the pack. (See "How Good Are Monroe's Schools,GÇ¥ March 27
The exception has been the eighth grade, where for several years in a row, scores have been anemic.
There are two middle schools in the district, and the largest is Park Place Middle School. Test scores for the 8th grade were below state average there in every subject. The problem isn't district-wide; Hidden River Middle School outperformed the state by a healthy margin. But the scores were concerning enough that school administrators are experimenting with new curricula and other strategies to improve that grade's performance.
The effort hasn't stopped at the eighth grade.
In fact, the district has been making a very focused effort to bring up achievement at the ninth grade level, and has had good results.
So successful has the effort been that recently Monroe High School Principal John Lombardi was a presenter at the annual Washington State School Directors' Association Conference to talk about what Monroe High School is doing right.
The Monroe School District decided to start emphasizing ninth grade success in part because of a study that appeared in the Journal of Education that found that success or failure in the ninth grade was the most important year to predict whether a student would finish high school, and how successfully that child will move forward.
The ninth grade also is the most troubled nationwide, with the lowest grades, the most missed classes and the highest number of referrals for misbehavior. In 2010, a study found that 22 percent of students repeated the ninth grade.
In 2007, 470 Monroe High School students got a total of 1,036 failing grades, about a third of the whole student body. State test scores were dismal, with a full three-quarters of students failing geometry and more than half failing a math review.
The district started out by working toward a change in the teaching culture, "empowering professionals to take ownership,GÇ¥ according to the presentation Lombardi delivered at the conference.
He highlighted the work of one teacher who had extraordinary results. Math teacher Kathy Stillwell subsequently got 60 of 62 of her students to pass algebra when 60 percent of the rest of the school was not passing, by offering intensive support, grouping students by proficiency levels, focusing on skill-building and expressing belief in the students.
Then the school started offering "algebra blocks.GÇ¥ Instead of having one typical class period per day, which would be less than an hour, the block classes ran for two class periods, giving students more time to master concepts.
Kids who continued to struggle were moved into classes that would better help them. Teachers worked together to a greater degree, using common chapter outlines and assessments, as well as sharing ideas and resources.
The district began to offer a summer Language Arts Academy, and began to have an orientation day for freshmen the day before school started in the fall.
The number of kids who passed both algebra and geometry in a single year rose sharply. In the 2010-2011 school year 60 kids passed, the following year 90 kids did, and last year, 120 kids completed the accelerated schedule.
State math scores at the 10th grade level, the last year at which they are measured, have risen every year for the last three years, as well.
And grades of "FGÇ¥ have dropped in both the ninth and tenth grades over the last two years, from 397 to 236 in the ninth grade, and from 556 to 420 in the 10th grade. That means that from a high of 1,036 failing grades in 2007, students last year got 656 failing grades, a drop of about 40 percent.
The improvement in grades seems to be reaching even the students who typically struggle the most; low-income students. Their high school scores rose in every subject tested last year.
And parents noticed; the results of a survey showed that 64 percent of parents often or always noticed that interventions were in place to help students if they should struggle, and 63 percent believed those interventions were effective.
Another factor that Lombardi believes has contributed to success is counseling and LINK Crew, which is a group of upperclassmen who volunteer to act as mentors for incoming freshmen to help them adjust to high school.
Underpinning all the efforts on behalf of ninth-graders is a philosophy that failure is not an option, Lombardi explained.
Monroe School Board member Nancy Truitt Pierce, who attended the conference and the presentation, gave it a glowing review on Facebook.
"I had a lot of school directors from other districts searching me out to tell me how impressed they were and I've already received a request from a school director who didn't attend the presentation asking for more information,GÇ¥ she said.


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