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How freshman year can make or break a student's chance to graduate high school on time

Middle school students in Rockford about to start high school
Middle school students in Rockford about to start high school

Educators say the most crucial year in any student’s education is their freshman year of high school. It can easily make or break their chances to graduate.

During the 2007-2008 school year, Oregon High School freshmen finished with 273 semester Fs. That’s bad. And it’s an even bigger problem when you realize that those 273 Fs came from a freshman class of only 130 students.

Kimberly Radostits was a young teacher at Oregon back then. That year, she helped start their “Hawks Take Flight” program to help freshmen who were struggling. They didn’t have much data, so at first it was just a homework hub where, once a week, she and a few other teachers would stay an hour after school with 10 students.

“Since then, we've developed that homework hub into more of an individualized approach where each one of the students that we've pulled in gets a teacher mentor,” she said. “Each one of those students has an adult that's there for them all year; that's rooting for them; that helps them set goals in terms of academics and social emotional learning.”

By 2019, just before the pandemic, Oregon had gone from 273 freshmen Fs to just seven. 99% of Oregon students were on-track to graduate.

Being “on-track” means a student earned 5 full-year course credits and failed no more than one semester of a core class.

This year, Kimberly Radostits was awarded 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year. And one of her biggest goals is to share “Freshmen on-Track” ideas with schools across the state. This spring, she plans to travel Illinois visiting schools with high freshmen on-track percentages and schools that have improved over the past few years during the pandemic.

She’ll help put together checklists for schools that are struggling. She’s also been giving speeches to any teachers and administrators who will listen. David Carson is one of them. He’s the assistant superintendent at Belvidere Community School District 100.

Last spring, he had a meeting with all of the high school principals and admin in their district. They were really concerned with the number of students who were not really engaged with their high school experience -- especially after the tumult and trauma of COVID-19. District 100’s graduation rate last year was the lowest it had been in years.

Studies show a school’s graduation rate is directly tied to freshman success. If a student ends the end of their freshman year with a D average, they have less than a 28% chance of graduating on time.

“I don't want to wait and not do something. Clearly there's a problem,” he said. “That problem existed before the pandemic. It’s just the scope of it is a little bit bigger now and probably the reasons for it are different.”

Soon after, a colleague heard Radostits speak at an event and he got in touch to bring her out to Belvidere to learn more.

They’re still in the research and development part of creating their own “Hawks Take Flight”-type of program. Radostits says one of the first questions she hears from interested schools like Belvidere is “How do you know which students need help?”

In Oregon, they spent years developing an early warning system to identify students starting in the 8th grade.

“So, we actually know the 15% of our student body that's most at risk of not graduating on time before they even reach our building,” she said.

But what indicators are they looking at? Radostits says they’ve narrowed it down to seven factors. They look at obvious things like GPA, attendance, referrals and missing assignments. But, they also include the number of health visits to the school nurse, and positive indicators like community service and school activities they’re involved in. With that, they can calculate a risk score to see if the student falls within the 15% who will join Hawks Take Flight.

Another big question she gets is about what happens once you get them in your program. Why will students be motivated to participate?

“These are kids that often have failed multiple courses in the past,” said Radostits. “And as a result, they come into freshman year not confident about school at all. And so we're trying to build up their confidence by reinforcing those behaviors and showing them that, ‘hey, the future for you really is bright, look, you're doing all of these right things.’”

This year, Hawks Take Flight has 17 students and seven teachers. Every week, they all meet together. Students spend time with their mentor to reflect on the past week and set goals for the next one.

“That might be ‘let's raise your Algebra-1 grade because we know that you have this test coming up,’ or it could be a social emotional growth goal, where it's like ‘cheerleading tryouts are coming out, you're not involved in any activities, I'd like to see you have a conversation with the cheerleading coach,’” said the 2022 Illinois Teacher of the Year.

She says they provide snacks and make sure to celebrate positive behaviors big and small. Maybe the biggest thing is devoting the time and staff resources to freshmen initiatives. Oregon’s freshmen teachers have a common plan period where they can look at behavior trends, analyze data and share ideas.

Radostits says you can look year-by-year and see Oregon’s freshmen-on-track rate rise and fall as more or fewer teachers are able to participate. And, she thinks that with the proper time and staff investment -- these ideas are scalable to districts of any size.

“What I'm already finding in conversations is the things that we're doing in small town, Illinois -- work everywhere,” she said.

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Morgan Gallagher is Rockford Public Schools’ chief of schools. RPS is the state’s third-largest school district. He’s been thinking about getting freshmen on-track for over a decade, back to his time as an assistant principal at freshman academies in Chicago Public Schools.

Just as Oregon was starting its freshman program “Hawks Take Flight” in 2007, the first research on how to keep freshman on-track was emerging from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. It was soon implemented to success across Chicago.

Gallagher said his boss told him in their first meeting in Chicago that if he didn’t get their on-track up, don’t expect to have a job next year.

“I inherited a freshman on-track the year prior that was 49%," he said. "So a majority of kids were off-track to graduate. And we grew that to 92% in one year, which was the highest growth of any high school in Chicago Public Schools."

When he became chief of schools in Rockford last year, he said his big priority -- and how he sold himself into the gig -- was improving freshmen on-track. He says there have been two prongs to its approach: data and a sense of belonging.

What that specifically looks like is different depending on the school. Some put freshman math classrooms right next to each other so teachers could more easily collaborate and identify trends. Auburn invested in parent-community liaisons. And all of the schools have given teachers access to student grades in every class so they know if students are only struggling in their subject.

Gallagher has tried to emphasize that rising tides lift all boats. The more students are supported and succeeding academically and emotionally -- the fewer students are disengaged in class.

The last few years, Rockford has been making progress. The freshmen on-track rate was 63% in 2019 -- that’s steadily increased to 75% this past year. Unfortunately, that’s still well below the state average.

He says they’re getting more and more staff buy-in as the data bears out that these strategies are working -- and that they’re working for the students who need the most help. Black students still lag behind with freshmen on-track. 64% of Black Rockford freshmen were on-track to graduate last year. But that’s a 9% jump from 2021.

If RPS wants to bring up its dismally low graduation rate, Gallagher says it starts with freshmen year.

And he says they’ve even been able to get hyper-specific about when during their freshman year that students struggle the most.

“You see the biggest drop off in on-track, in the first three weeks of the second semester,” he said. “That’s like across almost any high school in Illinois. You would see this trendline where you finish out your first semester strong; we finished it out at 81%, but then three to four weeks into the second semester, it drops down below 60%. It’s like a 20% drop in on-track in that first three weeks of second semester.”

He says teachers usually gently ease students into the school year. So, if they have a lot of trouble at the beginning of the year, it’s likely because of an issue with feeling like they belong. But with the second semester — after a long break — they often jump into new classes at full speed.

“Think about all the time and money and energy invested in our kids from pre-K getting all the way up to 9th grade -- all those years," he said. "Then, within just a matter of three weeks, we potentially lose 20% of our kids."

So far, Gallagher says the freshmen on-track rate is up another 2% year-over-year. But crunch time is coming. The second semester is coming soon, where so many students fall into a hole it’s hard to climb out of to graduate on time.

He hopes this year, they have the staff and resources in place to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.