Momentum Metrics Innovation Spotlight: Starting 9th Grade On-Track

Tuesday, November 8, 2022
Briana Falduti
Senior Associate

There are many questions that fill an incoming 9th grader’s mind: What should I wear on the first day of school? Where are my classes? What classes do I need to take? Will I like my teachers? While educators may not be the best suited to provide fashion advice, there are steps districts and schools can take to answer some of these questions and ease the minds of incoming freshmen. 

A student’s success during freshman year can help predict their long term outcomes. Freshman GPA, in particular, is predictive of 11th grade GPA, postsecondary enrollment, and first-year retention. The recent release of NAEP results highlights the timely importance of supporting students as they transition to high school. Eighth grade results in both mathematics and English dropped: 38 percent of 8th graders scored below NAEP Basic in math and 30 percent were below NAEP Basic in English. Students are now entering high school less academically prepared than previous cohorts, making an already-difficult transition that much more challenging. Districts must prioritize interventions and supports early in high school for students who are most at risk of falling behind.

One effective strategy to support students through the transition to high school is implementing a summer bridge program. High-quality 9th grade summer bridge programs are intensive programs for rising freshmen, particularly those who are at risk of struggling in 9th grade, that focus on the academic, social, and essential skills necessary to be successful in high school. Program activities may include instruction on foundational academic skills and content; social-emotional development; teaching essential skills such as organization, goal-setting, and communications; orientation to the high school space and policies; and near peer mentoring by older students.

Two of the districts who participated in ESG’s Momentum Metrics Network over the past year—Metro Nashville Public Schools and Lauderdale County Schools—identified 9th grade on-track as an area of focus for their district. Both piloted new summer experiences for incoming 9th graders this year. These districts vary greatly in size and geography, yet each found a way to tailor the program to their local context. 

Metro Nashville Public Schools, TN

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is the second-largest district in the state, serving over 80,000 students in the greater Nashville area. In the fall of 2020, the district welcomed 6,000 students into 9th grade. The MNPS team wanted to bolster the district’s summer programs, especially for high school students. In collaboration with Persist Nashville, a local college persistence organization, MNPS designed a college and career readiness and success curriculum to be used during the district’s Promising Scholars summer program. The curriculum consisted of forty lessons focused on college and career exploration, personal goals, financial literacy, social emotional learning, and ACT skills. Schools were excited to have structured lessons, videos, presentations, and handouts ready to use on day one of the four-week program. Schools were also able to adapt and add to the curriculum to meet the needs and interests of their unique student populations. Over 300 high school students participated in the district’s summer program, the majority of whom were rising freshmen. The district also integrated a number of the lessons from the summer program into the Freshman Seminar curriculum, which most 9th grade students in the district will complete this academic year.

Lauderdale County Schools, TN

Lauderdale County Schools—located in west Tennessee, about an hour north of Memphis—is a small district with a total enrollment of about 3,700 students. The district has two high schools which serve around 300 9th graders, combined, every year. During the summer of 2022, the district launched the Strong Start Summer Bridge Program for rising 9th graders. The program was offered early in the summer and included a college and career expo, tours of the high school campus, a high school club and sports fair, motivational speakers, and a panel of former Lauderdale students. Students also learned about the academic pathways available to them through the district’s CTE programs of study and participated in activities related to their chosen career path. Over 260 students participated in the program, and the district saw attendance increase throughout the three-day program due to word of mouth from participating students that the program was fun and informative. 

The district offered professional development to teachers and other educators to increase their awareness of postsecondary opportunities and the role they play in supporting students’ postsecondary plans. The program also gave teachers the opportunity to begin to build relationships with the incoming students. The district is currently tracking whether students who participated in the summer bridge program met academic success indicators at a higher rate than non-participants.

Despite the differences between Lauderdale County and MNPS, both districts were able to design a 9th grade summer bridge program that allowed students to become familiar with their high school, build relationships with teachers and classmates, and begin to understand and explore their postsecondary options. Building an awareness of postsecondary options helps students make connections between what they are learning in high school and their long-term goals. The earlier this can happen, the better.