steve-whatcottby Steve Whatcott
Kearns High School Community School Director

Back in September we announced the purpose and goals around moving 9th grade students from the local junior highs to Kearns High School, which officially took place this past school year. Although over 85 percent of the school faculty, and nearly 90 percent of families in the community supported the move, a change of such scope left everyone wondering if these students (and the school) would really be better off.

Key beliefs that prompted the change included:

First: Due to being in a high school environment, 9th grade students would fail fewer classes and receive higher GPA’s than if they remained in the junior high school, where they would not be surrounded by older students. Teachers, students, and staff reaffirm this message by supporting the idea that they should take their studies seriously.

Second: Opportunities to participate in a wider variety of classes, clubs, athletic teams, and activities would help 9th grade students stay connected to school and be more engaged.

Third: Older students, especially, juniors and seniors, would befriend and mentor the younger freshmen, helping them make a successful transition to the rigors of high school.

Of course, there were concerns about how the change might negatively affect students and the school:

Would kids who were used to a much smaller school get lost in a school with over 2,300 students? Would students, with increased freedom and reduced supervision, begin to miss more classes and struggle more academically? And, would younger (and oftentimes smaller and less mature) 14-year old students be safe and able to compete with much older, mature, (and bigger) students? Would having freshmen in the school positively or negatively affect the school atmosphere?

KearnsSo, after the first year, what’s the verdict?

Of those surveyed, nearly three-quarters of freshmen felt that they were better-off at high school than in junior high. Most of those students indicated that they had higher grades overall. One 9th grade student, Henry, said, “I really like it here. You have to get your grades up to graduate. I like to hang out with the older kids. They give me rides from place to place and it’s important to be with the older kids because you can learn from them.”   Anahi added, “The older kids say ‘Don’t mess up because I messed up.’ It makes me more motivated.” And, Judith, a senior, talked about how proud she was of a much younger freshman, whom she befriended, who had told her that he went from F’s to A’s and B’s, because he hated it when she told him that she was disappointed in his grades.

In terms of data, without having the figures of most of these students’ attendance patterns from 7th and 8th grade, it is difficult to determine exactly how much being in high school affected attendance; however, the principal was very concerned with the steady increase of absenteeism as the year progressed. In October, 105 students missed at least 10 percent of their classes, whereas in March, 189 students missed at 10 percent or more. By the end of the fourth quarter, 74 percent of students were on-track to graduate, with 26 percent not on-track, determined by passing grades in core courses. In 7th and 8th grade, only 31 percent of those same students had zero F’s in core courses. During the year, 9th grade GPA dropped from 2.76 during the first quarter to 2.4 during the 4th quarter.

Nationally, it is typical for students’ attendance and GPA to drop during the 9th grade year; however, because the goal is to help every student be successful, this data serves as a flashlight to illuminate areas for potential improvement. For most 9th grade students, the move has been positive. The next step will be to analyze the data to figure out how we can better identify students that are falling through the cracks. For most who struggle with grades and attendance, the slide started long before entering 9th grade. Being in high school has positively affected many students, and now the work must continue to create an environment and improve support systems that will keep even more incoming 9th grade students on the path towards successfully graduating from high school and ready for post-secondary education, career, and beyond.