MPS program keeps ninth graders on track

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage-point decrease in Edison’s ninth-grade science course-failure rate. It has been updated.

Ninth-grade academic performance is among the best predictors of high school graduation, according to University of Chicago research.

A new Minneapolis Public Schools initiative is helping ninth graders stay on track.

The district rolled out its On-Track program this fall at all nine of its core high schools as part of an effort to boost graduation rates.

The early results have been promising: The number of ninth graders who failed a course fell 6 percent in the first quarter of 2016 compared to last year. The rate was even better for minority students.

As part of the program, ninth-grade teachers and support staff meet regularly to discuss students and plan for interventions. They utilize data to identify off-track students and interventions used to support them.

The district deems students “on track” if they meet four thresholds: They have a C- or higher in all classes, attendance of at least 91 percent and no suspensions or referrals, which is when a student is sent out of the classroom because of behavior.

Students are labeled “focus” if they have a D- to D+ in any course, attendance between 85 and 90 percent or a referral. They are deemed “priority” if they have an F, attendance below 85 percent, a suspension or two referrals.

Fifth-nine percent of ninth graders were “on track” after the first quarter of this school year. Nineteen percent were deemed “focus,” and 23 percent were deemed “priority.”

Southwest had the highest percentage of on-track students at 68 percent, while North had the lowest at 34 percent.

The district saw the biggest student improvement in science and social studies. Those courses had a failure rate that was 3 percent lower in the first quarter of 2016 than it was in the first quarter of 2015.

English course failure remained at 10 percent, while math increased to 8 percent from 7 percent.

Superintendent Ed Graff said at a December School Board meeting that the district has focused on social studies and science because staff saw a lot of failure there.

Edison Principal Eryn Warne said her school has focused particularly on ninth-grade physical science, looking at their assessments, for example, to see if they are good indicators of proficiency.

That focus led to a 34-percent drop in ninth-grade science failure at Edison, to 23 percent from 57 percent.

The On-Track program has come with an emphasis on social-emotional learning. Edison ninth-grade team lead Kyle Resler said his team not only talks about how students are doing academically but also about who they are as people.

“We have this belief that if we can somehow connect students to something at Edison, they will stay with us,” he said.

Patrick Henry Assistant Principal Bjorn Lundgren said students almost never fail because of a lack of skills. Rather, it’s often because of trauma, mental health or a lack of engagement to school.

“It’s rare that it’s a true skill issue,” he said.

That engagement comes through working with counselors, advisories and by schools working with families.

Jim Bierma, one of the district’s lead counselors, said he would make a positive phone call home when the students meet their goal, for example. Bierma said the goal is for students to hit their goals 80 percent of the time.

MPS Chief of Schools Michael Thomas said the district is looking at how it can scale positive results across the schools.