High School Transition is Not One Event!

As the counselor reviewed her sporadic attendance, poor grades, and declining behavior, the girl sat expressionless.  Beside her was her mother whose eyes started to well with tears. After the mom composed herself, she turned to the girl and said, "You are only in 9th grade! I am not going to let you drop out of school! At least your sister  had the sense not to drop out until she was in 12th grade!"  The student just glared at her mom and then screamed, "You dropped out of school and you have a job! I don't have to finish high school to find a job."  The mom turned to the counselor with desperation and cried, "Can't you talk some sense in her!  Tell her what she is facing...no job, no future, and the men...tell her about them and how they will take advantage of her!" "Ms. Moore, said the counselor, I wish I could say more to help, but your daughter just is not listening to me. Many of her friends are leaving school and she has decided high school is not for her. I suggest that we talk about additional alternatives for her."  Disheartened, the mom got up and stormed away. 

According to research, 9th grade
 has the highest dropout rate.
Unfortunately, this is a true story told to me by a parent about her daughter in the mid 90's.  So, what happened to the student?  Well, sadly she quit school in the middle of her freshman year and eventually went to a Youth Challenge Program sponsored by the National Guard.  While she graduated from the program and got her life together, she regretted that she did not stay in high school to complete her education. When I asked her why she quit, she said that there were several reasons. First, she felt unprepared for the amount of work in high school. Second, she was picked on because she was different and never accepted by her peers or teachers. Last, she felt that her family stepped in too late to help her because they did not understand her frustration with high school.  Unfortunately, this woman's story is not uncommon.  In fact, researchers have found that students drop out of high school in ninth grade more than any other grade.  This high drop out rate has earned ninth grade the nickname of the "bottleneck" grade.

9th Grade: The Bottleneck of High School!
Reasons Students Drop Out of School in Ninth Grade

Many 9th graders are
unprepared for HS rigor
Researchers have found that ninth graders tend to drop out of school for three major reasons: social and developmental issues, lack of structural knowledge about the school, and inability to handle academic rigor. During the first year of high school, peer relationships tend to become more important to students than academic concerns.  It is during this time that students often become involved in negative social situations that may get them into trouble.  Due to these increased negative behaviors, suspensions and expulsions are often higher in ninth grade than in any other grade.  The increased time out of class can cause students to lose valuable instructional time which may spiral into academic failure.  Because high schools tend to be much larger than middle schools, students often fall through the cracks before interventions can be implemented.

Since high schools can be the size of a small city, students often become anonymous and feel disconnected to school and their teachers. During their freshmen year, students are expected to be proactive and responsible for their learning.  However, in a 2006 study of middle school students in 26 states, one-fifth of the students reported they never received information about their courses, the difficulty of the content, or skills they would need in high school. Not feeling connected to learning can cause frustration and lead to failure in students.

In addition to feeling disconnected, ninth graders are often academically unprepared for the academic rigor of high school.  The Breakthrough Coalition found that students were three to four times more likely to fail one or more classes in ninth grade.  Even
students who made adequate grades in middle school find themselves performing poorly in high school.  If left unchecked, 70-80% of students who fail in ninth grade do not graduate from high school.
Many freshmen feel isolated

Is There An Answer To the Ninth Grade Drop Out Dilemma?
One answer in preparing students for the challenges of high school includes establishing a smooth transition from eighth to ninth grade.  Morgan & Hertzog (2001) and Smith (1997) found schools that have an explicit transition program have significantly lower dropout rates. In addition, the National Middle School Association has found that decisions made about career and college choices during the eighth grade year have a greater impact on a student's future more so than decisions made when they graduate from high school.  Also, researchers say that the most successful transition programs are not one event, but include a continuous process.  These processes should be multifaceted, involve parents, include collaboration between high school and middle school staff,  and meet the developmental needs of students. "The importance of a smooth transition from 8th grade to 9th grade cannot be emphasized enough, as this transition will determine a student's success in high school as well as decisions about their post-secondary school life." (Quote by Cooper & Markoe-Hayes from Improving the Educational Possibilities of Urban High School Students as They Transition from 8th to 9th Grade as cited from Challenges from the Ninth Grade Transition )

So, how can successful transition occur between middle and high school?  In an article by Cheryl Ellerbrock, she gives suggestions to educators of what they can do to help students transition to high school.  First, districts must be willing to allocate resources for high school transition. This can be as simple as funding programs that create positive peer network development or mentoring. Next, schools should be proactive and provide education to families about the importance of 9th grade transition. This can include newsletters, events (like parent nights, teacher meet and greets, and orientations), and the creation of informational websites for 8th grade parents.  During these events, students can practice procedural changes from middle to high school.  Some examples of these procedural changes include bell changes, lockers and combinations, lunchroom rules, how to get to class on time, and a copy of handbook with activities. Because many incoming freshmen are under prepared for the type of work they must complete, students can be given examples of  high school work and tips about personal responsibility. Another effective transition method includes creating individual graduation plans for each student. Students should learn how credits work and their importance before arriving to high school.  Check out this resource from Own Your Own Future on high school credits, the 8th grade Road Map to College, and a four year plan by Louisiana Believes. One last suggestion includes educating students and parents about the importance of joining activities, school clubs, and extracurricular activities. Providing students with a list of extracurricular activities and even establishing a mentoring program between incoming freshmen and older students can be helpful (see resource Why Leadership Skills are Important).

Resources:Middle and High School Transition and Ten Things Students Should Do For a Successful Transition to High School

Now that we have an idea of what schools can do, what about the school counselor? Although I know it difficult to even think about 8th graders when you have your current caseload, there are some steps school counselors can consider to encourage a smooth transition from middle to high school. Foster, Peterson, and Johnson, give some pointers in their article, Easing the Middle School to High School Transition: A Guide for Schools.

Provide information to middle school parents and students about your school. Possible activities include:
  • Establishing student-led tours of your school;
  • Shadowing a high school student in the spring;
  • Holding a student panel discussion in the spring at the middle school;
  • Offering advanced planning with the high school counselor;
  • Establishing e-pal relationships between high school and middle school students;
  • Authoring a newsletter for middle school parents;
  • Asking parents of 9th graders to serve as ambassadors to 8th grade parents.
Help students build positive social interactions with current students:
  • Establishing orientation and mentoring programs like Link Crew (see below) or peer helpers;
  • Holding an open house for 8th graders hosted by 9th graders;
  • Arranging a newcomer festival for incoming 8th graders before 9th grade starts in the fall;
  • Scheduling regular counselor hours with 9th grade classes;
  • Providing a 9th grade hot line to counselor or administrators for parental contact.
Provide consistent contact between middle and high school counselors:
  • Arranging K-12 curriculum planning meetings;
  • Communicating with elementary, middle, and high school liaisons;
  • Creating a transition team.
Provide opportunities for parental involvement:
  • Developing a 9th grade newsletter that 8th grade parents can receive during middle school;
  • Inviting parents to spend the day at the high school;
  • Creating learning opportunities for parents and students.
If you find yourself part of a transition team or you are the transition team, here are some additional resources you can use to assist with your upcoming process.  Hope you find some helpful information!

School Resources
Wake County Public Schools Transition Guide
Fairfax County, Virginia Transition Plan
Oregon Transition Program
West Virginia Transition Plan
Louisiana Transition Plan
Great Neck North High School Peer Leader Advisory Manual - You can contact @Ryan_Fisk for the full manual.
Count Down to High School -  contains curricula and resources for creating a 8th to 9th grade transition program.
Drighton-Rehoboth Regional High School Transition Program
Fulton County Schools Spring Transition Letter to Parents
Fulton County Transition Timeline
Fulton County Transition Presentation
Carmel High School Transition Brochure
Greyhound Kickoff Program Website
Freshmen Greyhound Kickoff Day
Freshmen Greyhound Kickoff Day Information
Dade Schools Transition Lessons
Rainbow Schools Transition Booklet

Organizations That Support Transition
Why Link Crew?  Members of the junior and senior class help freshmen make a transition into high school by planning activities and events.
Link Crew Timeline
Kick Off Program
Resources for Mentoring
The Freshmen Transition Network
NOSCA: HS Counselor Guide to College and Career Awareness

Focus on Freshmen Conference 2016
Freshmen Transition Initiative