Many educators point to 9th grade as a crucial year for students. New studies show that freshmen have the lowest GPAs and lowest attendance of any high school grade level.
Some schools have tried out strategies such as “freshmen academies” to try to fix the problem, with mixed results. But some schools are trying to support students better, for less money, by teaming teachers and students together.
About once a month at Noble High School in Berwick, freshman science teacher Amy Mann temporarily abandons the science curriculum. Instead, she talks with her students about more personal subjects, such as making friends or dealing with grief. Today she asks the kids how to be a leader.
“Some of you are leaders in small ways, in your small groups. Some of you are more vocal. Some of you stand back a bit. We’re gonna find out today, where do you fall in this? Because you all have the ability to be a leader,” she says.
It may seem a little strange to interrupt academics to talk about leadership. But at Noble and other schools across Maine, this happens for 9th graders every week as part of a program called BARR, which stands for Building Assets, Reducing Risks.
It’s something that school leaders say could be a way to help cash-strapped rural school districts take on some big challenges without spending much more money.
“It’s deceptively easy, and yet it’s getting these huge results when it’s done correctly,” says Angie Jerabek, executive director of BARR.
Jerabek actually designed the program more than 15 years ago, when she was working as a guidance counselor in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park.
Back then, she says, half of her freshmen were failing their classes. She didn’t have lots of money to spend on more teachers or support to change things. So Jerabek designed a structure where students and teachers could be separated into “teams.”
The idea is to give the students a kind of support system of familiar faces in a critical year.
You can see it play out at RSU 25 in Bucksport, about an hour west of Bar Harbor. In the early 2000s, the school was suffering from low graduation rates, high dropouts and declining enrollment. By the time the Verso Paper mill closed in 2014, things hadn’t improved, and then the school budget was forcibly cut.
Bucksport Middle School principal Josh Tripp says the school saw BARR as a way out in 2009.
“You’ve got to remember, our community has really changed its face over the past five years,” he says. “We went from being based around a paper mill, which was 44 percent of our tax base to, well, it’s being torn down as we speak. We no longer have that. Our community has drastically changed, but kids still show up to our school needing to be educated.”
Now, every Tuesday and Wednesday, all of the 9th grade teachers in Bucksport gather together with the principals, social workers, the school nurse and others. A giant spreadsheet lays out grades, absences, behaviors and interventions for every student in the class. Then the teachers go down the list, one by one.
High school principal Bill Tracy says the whole staff talks about every student — how are they doing? How are their grades? Is everything OK at home?
“And you started to look at them as this whole being,” he says. “This whole student approach. Their social, emotional health as well. And by looking at it through that lens, with a group of teachers, you were able to really dig down to what prevented a student from getting a real go, especially as a freshman.”
“I’ve said oftentimes, it’s so simplistic that it gets overlooked,” says Superintendent Jim Boothby.
Boothby says this idea of talking with other teachers and getting to really know kids is something almost every educator wants to do. The difference here, he says, is the structure. Teachers are now required to keep track of every student and to intervene when necessary.
That intervention can be as simple as calling parents, but it could also mean contacting the police or other authorities.
“We’ve taken all that and put it in a structure that puts students first,” Boothby says. “Every student is discussed every week. We have students here who tell us everyone knows about them! Kids will say, ‘Why is the science teacher asking them about their English paper?’ So the students know and recognize very quickly that it’s all-in for all kids.”
The program has shown success, with graduation rates rising and dropout rates declining, not only in Bucksport but in about 19 other Maine schools. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education just awarded Spurwink Services $20 million to expand the program nationwide.
The transition hasn’t been easy. Educators admit that transforming a high school schedule so every teacher can meet at the same time is really difficult.
Nancy Simard, the BARR coordinator at Berwick’s Noble High School, says the first few semesters with BARR put a lot of pressure on teachers, both academically and emotionally.
“When they started doing this, they were spending an hour and a half to two hours every Sunday night, gathering this data, in addition to what they were doing,” she says. “So these teachers were overwhelmed, to say the least.”
Simard says BARR is now embedded in the school’s culture and that has made a difference.
What’s also helped is the cost. Simard says BARR costs roughly $100,000 over three years to implement. After that, the cost is negligable.
Educators across the state say that’s been a worthwhile investment so far.