Ninth grade is typically one of the most challenging years in a student’s educational career. Students who fail even a single freshman year course are significantly less likely to graduate than their peers who pass all of their freshman year courses. National data reveal an enrollment decrease between ninth grade and tenth grade, attributed partially to students dropping out of high school altogether in, or after, ninth grade. Over 10% of enrolled ninth graders nationally repeat the year entirely.
There are many reasons why ninth grade can be a “make-or-break” year for students. Compared to middle school, high school can be an isolating environment with more challenging academic standards, less personalized learning environments, and limited social-emotional supports. High school students are also expected to assume greater responsibility over their learning, while often experiencing greater social pressures from peers. The importance of ninth grade to high school and post-secondary success means it is imperative for districts to employ a comprehensive system of student supports.
To improve graduation rates and academic outcomes for all students, districts should implement a multi-grade system of high school transition supports that extends from middle school through grade nine and beyond. Within this system, districts can implement summer programs that “bridge” the gap between the end of eighth grade and start of ninth grade to help students have a smoother transition to high school.
The Importance of Summer Bridge Programs
Bridge programs can support at-risk students by mitigating summer learning loss, providing students an opportunity to catch up on their studies, and further preparing students for their high school transition. Refreshing students on the material they learned the previous year can lead to significant academic progress: 90% of summer bridge participants in Georgia’s Dekalb County school system earned enough credits their freshman year to become sophomores while also outscoring nonparticipants on end-of-course tests. Summer bridge programs may also inspire students to stay in school instead of dropping out and to take advanced placement courses later in their high school careers.
In addition, summer bridge programs can help students who are nervous to enter high school feel more confident in the transition. A bridge program can provide students with a way to bond with each other, meet upperclassman who may assist with the program, experience fewer discipline problems, and increase their self-esteem.
Tips for Building a Bridge Program
1. Bridge the Academic Gap
Summer bridge programs should provide both academic and emotional support for students entering high school. However, before the program launches, schools must first assess the students entering the program to identify students most at risk of dropping out, or who may be struggling emotionally, socially, and academically. These results should be shared with educators and other administrators of the program so at-risk students receive personalized support that can help them to better adjust.
Courses and learning experiences should be taught by experienced, skilled, and qualified teachers— ideally, the same teachers who will instruct bridge program students when they enter grade nine. Teachers should present an intensive academic focus on the foundational reading, writing, math, and academic skills, with the academic curriculum based on clear learning goals and expectations that align with grade nine courses and standards. In addition, the curriculum should include orientation activities for both students and families, assistance with study skills and organizational habits, and proactive postsecondary-planning guidance so that families can continue to support students throughout high school.
2. Provide Emotional Support for the High School Transition
Beyond helping students feel academically prepared for high school, bridge programs can also help students learn social-emotional skills, identify personal behaviors that may affect their success in high school, and identify and reflect on their goals for the future. The Portland Public School’s “Step Up” program provides a series of “positive and self-affirming experiences” and continues to receive support, such as after-school tutoring and social-emotional guidance from a Step Up advocate during grades nine and ten. When teachers, counselors, and advisors embed social and emotional development into all learning experiences, they may help students better prepare for the challenges they are likely to encounter in grade nine.
In addition, educators and support specialists should intentionally build relationships between students and adults—specifically, between students and the teachers, counselors, advisors, and mentors who will instruct and support students in grade nine. Not only will letting students meet their teachers allow them to pick up material more easily once school starts, it will also give them a chance to bond with their teachers and attain long-lasting support. Teachers can also help families identify warning signs to help them keep the student successful in school: in the “Step Up” program, teachers communicate regularly with families to emphasize that course failure, poor attendance, and behavior issues increase the chances that their child will not complete high school. With additional teacher and family support, students may have a smoother transition to high school and a more successful four-year experience.
Learn additional steps to help students transition successfully to high school. Download the Supporting Successful High School Transitions research brief now.