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9th-Grade Class Gets 'A' for Effort

After a new academic push, more at Sun Valley's Poly High will advance to 10th grade.

June 28, 2005|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

John Francis Polytechnic High School had an unusual reason to celebrate Monday: Most of its freshmen passed their classes.

For the first time in recent memory, the Sun Valley school will enroll more 10th-graders than ninth-graders in the upcoming year because so many students earned enough credits to advance.

Poly High's ninth-graders and their teachers closed their successful year with a pancake breakfast and a dance contest featuring hip-hop tunes.

School administrators and teachers were giddy -- with good cause: Educators and researchers have found that nearly all students who finish ninth grade go on to graduate from high school.

"Congratulations -- we did it," Assistant Principal Ed Trimis told 300 ninth-graders who paid $5 apiece for the breakfast in the cafeteria-auditorium. "You are making the improvement that is needed to have a senior class [whose numbers] parallel the freshmen class."

Like other urban campuses, Poly High has struggled to keep students in school until they graduate.

Only 49% of Poly's ninth-graders from the 2000-01 school year graduated four years later, about the same percentage as in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools overall, according to data analyzed by UCLA researchers.

Poly High launched its freshman initiative a year ago to stem its alarming loss of students, particularly between ninth and 10th grades.

The school, which serves a low-income, largely Latino student body, altered its schedule, going from six classes a day to four longer periods. The change meant shorter semesters that would allow students to take 16 classes a year rather than 12 -- providing additional opportunities to make up failing grades.

In high school, unlike at middle or elementary campuses, students are promoted to the next grade level only if they earn the requisite number of credits.

Poly High also began offering algebra and geometry prep classes at the beginning of the year so that freshmen would stand a better chance of succeeding in the high school curriculum.

Students who failed half or more of their classes were placed in a special "twilight school," with small classes that met from about 11:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. each day. The idea was to keep them in school into the late afternoon when they might otherwise be with friends.

Meanwhile, the school moved most ninth-grade classes to the back of the campus, away from the distractions of older students. A new freshman center opened with an assistant principal, a coordinator, a dean and two counselors devoted to ninth-graders.

Poly High administrators said they expected 89% of 858 freshmen this year to advance to 10th grade, up from about 76% of the class last year.

The figures do not include ninth-graders in the school's magnet program or those in certain special education classes or others who have little or no English skills.

Poly High was unable to keep every ninth-grader on a graduation track this year. About 150 will not be advancing to 10th grade because they failed too many classes or did not earn enough credits.

L.A. Unified officials could not say how Poly High's matriculation figures compared with other schools' because the district does not collect such data.

But officials said the school was among a handful of campuses -- including Taft High in Woodland Hills and Locke High in South Los Angeles -- that are mounting similar efforts to keep ninth-graders from dropping out.

The results of Poly High's new policies were evident at Monday's breakfast.

Anayeli Del Rio-Rios, 15, had taken advantage of the school's new schedule this year to make it through algebra.

Anayeli failed the class on the first try but got a second chance with another teacher eight weeks later -- and passed.

"I just tried harder," said Anayeli, the oldest of four children whose first language is Spanish. "The second teacher explained it more."

Principal Janis Fries-Martinez said the reforms have demanded extra energy and time on the part of teachers and administrators, but she added that doing business the old way was unacceptable.

"It's 12-, 16-, 18-hour days," she said. "But it's worth every minute."

The federal No Child Left Behind law has placed new pressure on schools to increase their graduation rates, one of the factors that is now used to evaluate schools annually. In fact, Poly High did not meet its federal targets this year partly because it failed to adequately raise its graduation rate.

Researchers say schools are reacting to the law by paying closer attention to ninth grade. Many campuses nationwide are reorganizing into so-called small learning communities, reducing class sizes and providing tutoring and intervention classes in math and English.

"If you do make it through the ninth grade, your odds of graduating go up substantially," said Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University and associate director of the Talent Development High School Model, some of whose ideas are being followed at Poly.

"Typically, the kids come into high school not ready ... because they have weak skills coming in, bad attendance and trouble adjusting to ninth grade," Balfanz said.

Poly High plans to expand some of the freshman reforms in the coming year. Among other things, ninth- and 10th-graders will be divided into smaller groups where they will receive more individual attention.

But administrators say the true test of their work will come in three years, when this group of ninth-graders reaches graduation.

"All we want is students to graduate and have the skills to do what they want when they grow up," said Cheryl Cohen-Thompson, coordinator of the freshman center. "Everywhere the students turn, [we want them ] to get the same message: Failure is not an option. You're smart. There is no reason why you can't succeed and get the best out of life."

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