Battling the Ninth Grade Bulge

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Researchers call it the “ninth grade bulge,” and it has nothing to do with weight gain among teenagers. Rather, the term refers to a decades long trend that could prove critical to helping more students graduate high school and go on to successful careers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. public high schools report having many more ninth graders than eighth or 10th graders. This “bulge” isn’t the product of population trends or some sort of one-year anomaly; it’s consistent from year to year. In fact, in every year since 1993, public school enrollment from kindergarten forward has peaked in ninth grade and then declined, and that trend is projected to continue through at least 2025.

The reasons for the bulge have everything to do with whether children have the tools to succeed in ninth grade and later. More students fail ninth grade than any other year in high school. Many of them, about one-fifth according to an Education Digest article by Kyle Megan McCallumore and Erving F. Sparapani, repeat ninth-grade classes, and some eventually drop out. So the numbers of ninth graders bulge, while class sizes for 10th, 11th and 12th graders shrink.

Even students who don’t drop out or repeat ninth grade face significant challenges in the transition to high school. Again according McCallumore and Sparapani, ninth graders “have the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high school grade level.” The challenges can be most acute for students in large urban high schools.

Clearly, finding ways to ease the transition to this make-or-break school year is critical. Many students who don’t succeed in ninth grade simply aren’t academically prepared for the challenges of new schedules and more demanding classes. With that in mind, the summer between eighth and ninth grade is a critical opportunity for summer learning programs to keep students engaged to some degree in academics, thus helping to prevent the summer learning loss that takes a particular toll on students who may already be struggling.

As youth development professionals well know, after-school programs during the school year have a long track record of helping to boost student achievement, improve attendance and reduce behavior problems — three of the key indicators that predict high school success. Many after-school programs work with regular school day teachers to identify students most in need of academic support based on school attendance patterns, coursework completion and overall school behavior and then provide homework help and even one-on-one tutoring for students to help them stay on track.

But there’s more that programs can do to take aim at the ninth grade bulge. They can coordinate with their students’ teachers to identify particular skills and content most in need of additional enrichment. They can ensure staff take time to connect with students and provide learning opportunities that link to their interests and passions, boost their self-esteem and strengthen their ability to communicate and work together with their peers. They can offer a variety of scaffolded activities that challenge students in a low-stakes environment, and give middle school students the opportunity to work with high schoolers acting as peer mentors. Or they can provide opportunities for students to take on leadership roles that more strongly connect them with their after-school program and ultimately their school.

A less visible way out-of-school-time programs help ease the transition to ninth grade is by bridging the gap between teenagers and their parents. As any parent of a teen can attest, the process by which adolescents begin separating from their parents can be rocky. As teens push boundaries and assert their independence, it is all the more important for parents to provide structure and stability, and stay involved in their child’s education.

Out-of-school-time programs can help by going the extra mile to engage parents in various activities, including family nights at the after-school site, volunteer projects in the community and more. Programs can also reassure parents as they struggle to guide their teens through the high school years, providing information about children’s development and offering insights into how to manage behavior.

With effective parent and family engagement strategies, after-school and summer-learning programs can not only support academic, social and emotional development of youth, but also improve parent-child relationships.

Of course, out-of-school-time programs can’t do it alone; they need support. Parents and schools need to be enlisted as partners, and local policymakers need to hear that they can and should address the problem of the ninth grade bulge by investing in the supports that OST programs provide.

Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, and Marlyn Torres is senior program officer at the New York Life Foundation. These organizations announced in January a new $1.95 million grant initiative called Aim High, for programs supporting middle school-aged youth.