Overhaul of Schenectady ninth grade getting results

There are empty chairs in Schenectady High School’s ninth-grade classrooms, and teachers couldn’t be

There are empty chairs in Schenectady High School’s ninth-grade classrooms, and teachers couldn’t be happier.

That’s because more students than usual passed last year and went on to 10th grade; only 60 freshmen are repeating ninth grade this year. In the past, about 100 students — 20 percent of the class — failed freshman year on their first try.

Nationally, about 90 percent of those who fail ninth grade never graduate, so a decrease in the freshman failure rate is expected to equate to a significant increase in the graduation rate.

In addition, 115 more freshmen than usual passed the Regents exam in algebra, the first major hurdle to graduation. And about 40 students who had repeated ninth grade managed to pass their classes under a new, intense program to help them catch up.

The changes might be small, but they add up to 195 more students than usual now on track to graduate.

Part of the success is a result of the district’s new attendance deans, who haul freshmen out of bed, break up parties and search out students skipping class at McDonald’s or Stewart’s. The district’s new attendance system notifies the deans as soon as the student is late for the first class of the day, and students are brought directly to class as soon as they’re found.

But once the students get to class, the teachers have to get them to learn. So teachers started by using what they call the age-plus-two model.

Teenagers can listen to a lecture for the amount of time equal to their age plus two minutes, English teacher Sara Kromer said. Then teachers should switch to discussions, small group activities, writing assignments and other work.

That was one of the many new methods taught over the past two summers at the high school. Many of the ninth grade teachers spent all summer learning new ways of teaching, writing curriculum and keeping children interested.

“A lot of things just don’t happen magically,” Principal Peg Normandin said of the improvement in the ninth grade passing rate. “A good chunk of our teachers spent the summer in this building.”

Normandin is in charge of implementing a school improvement plan ordered by the state because of the students’ poor performance.

Bite-sized lessons

It’s working, Kromer said. Her students are now focusing longer and learning far more in each class period.

“They don’t get burnt out because they’re not listening to me that long,” she said.

In global studies — another class that used to be heavy on lectures — students recently moved from station to station around the room, reading data about the six main issues creating the Israeli-Arab conflict.

At each station, small groups debated how to rank how difficult each issue was for the Israelis and Arabs to overcome. Then each student wrote a brief explanation for their ranking system.

“They’re evaluating, analyzing,” said teacher Jennifer Burroughs. “It was a lot better than sitting there writing notes.”

Teachers also got rid of homework. Grades are now based solely on how the student does on tests, and everything else is considered practice.

But they still offer take-home practice work, and they tell the students that practice is the best way to prepare for the “big game” — otherwise known as the next test.

“I tell them, if you don’t practice before the basketball game, you won’t do well,” said math teacher Molly Bracken. “We’re trying to help the students see past the end of their nose.”

Normandin says grades are now far more accurate, because they’re based on the student’s abilities rather than effort. Turning in homework doesn’t help a failing student pass the class, and ignoring the homework doesn’t drag down the grade of the student who has already mastered the material.

Getting more students to pass ninth grade isn’t enough to fix the district’s 59 percent graduation rate. If the district’s only problem were the 20 percent freshman failure rate, it would have an 80 percent graduation rate — an enviable figure that would put it in competition with many suburban schools.

The trouble is that many students in the past got through their classes but failed the Regents exams, which are required for a diploma.

Tough equation

One of the biggest hurdles is the algebra exam, which is normally given at the end of ninth grade.

In Schenectady, so many students do poorly in math that half used to be shunted into a two-year algebra class. To catch up, they have to pass three Regents exams in 10th grade, instead of just two: global studies and science.

So last year, district officials decided to push all of its ninth graders to take the exam. Out of 540 freshmen, 500 took the Regents, and 308 passed it.

That’s a huge improvement: Just two years ago, only 193 ninth graders passed the exam. The new data means that 115 students are now more likely to graduate on time.

For most of those students, the difference was the freshman seminar, a special skills-focused class for students who did poorly in eighth grade. About half of the freshman class is assigned to the seminar each year.

All of the core subject teachers co-teach the seminar, but halfway through the school year, they all start to focus on math.

“They integrated math into everything,” Normandin said.

All five teachers became math teachers, working with students in small groups during the seminar.

Bracken taught her co-teachers the “quick and dirty” basics of each lesson, and they “hammered it home,” she said. It wasn’t rote drilling: there were games and prizes. They tried to make it interesting, but they kept reminding the students of the “big game” at the end of the year.

In English class, students learned math-related vocabulary questions and studied the meaning of math’s word questions, which are a test of reading as well as math.

In global studies, they charted human rights violations by region to determine the worst offenders. They calculated oil production figures when they studied the oil crisis.

In biology, teacher Katie LaMora changed her curriculum and taught the students mean, median and mode after math teacher Bracken said students struggled to grasp the concepts.

“It’s paying dividends,” Bracken said. “In past years, I’ve had such difficulty. This time, they were like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ In past years, I’d hear, ‘That’s not how we do it in science. Now I know how we do it in science, and I know we’re being consistent.”


Four days a week, the ninth-grade teachers meet for an hour to work out curriculum combinations like that. They also meet for four hours a week with the other teachers of their subject to figure out how to teach better.

They use the same test for each class, then compare to see whether some classes understood certain questions better.

“If almost all of my kids got this question wrong, and all of his got it right, I can say, ‘Well, how did you teach this?’ ” Burroughs said. “ ‘How can I take what you did right back to my class?’ It’s really helped us to teach a lot smarter.”

The district also saw strong results from its new “10-prep” program, which took all of last year’s ninth-grade repeaters and offered them an intense series of classes to catch up with their friends. Unfortunately, about half of the students moved away or enrolled in GED classes — the GED is considered an acceptable alternative for those who can’t get through regular high school. Dozens of students appeared briefly in class, and then moved out of Schenectady. Some lived in the city for a week or less, Normandin said.

The other half of the repeaters did well. Nineteen students managed to pass ninth grade in the intense program, allowing them to enter 10th grade.

Only nine students failed to pass ninth grade a second time, a phenomenal rate compared to previous years, when dozens of students failed ninth grade two or three times and then dropped out.

Big leaps

But the real success story is the students who did more than simply pass ninth grade.

Twenty students passed so many classes that they moved from ninth to 11th grades, catching up with their graduating class. One student who had repeated ninth grade twice leaped from ninth to 12th, putting him on track to graduate with his class.

He moved here from New York City, Normandin said. When he arrived, he had only a couple of credits to show for three years of high school — and none of those credits were in the core classes required to graduate. He hadn’t passed a single Regents.

But he took full advantage of the district’s 10-prep program, picking up double credits for English and global studies. He also enrolled in night school, which extends the school day by three hours. If that wasn’t enough, he took more classes by computer.

He filled his Regents exam schedule in both January and June and managed to collect almost 15 credits in one year.

“It may not be an easy senior year, but he has the potential of graduating this year,” Normandin said.

If he does, he will add a much-needed point toward the district’s graduation rate. But it’s the graduating class of 2014 that will prove whether last year’s reorganization was truly effective. If the district can hang on to most of the 200 students it loses in high school, the graduation rate will skyrocket.

“I can’t wait to see it,” Kromer said. “I feel we’re building a love of learning because our classrooms aren’t boring. We’re giving the kids a reason to come back. Even kids who weren’t exceptional successes in my class last year are coming back, and they’re being more successful this year. In four years, I’ll be very excited to see how many of them make it.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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