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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Teaching Tuesday: Freshman Parking Lot

There's a lot of interesting stuff in the Milwaukee Public Schools' 2004-2005 report card (.pdf), which I printed out and promptly forgot to bring home with me. What's making news from the report, though, is the "freshman parking lot":
The report shows that in 2004-'05:
  • There were 9,857 students in ninth grade, with no other grade coming close to that total. Seventh grade with 7,159 was next.
  • Enrollment falls off quickly after ninth grade, with 4,551 students in 12th grade last year, 46% of the ninth grade total.
  • Almost one in four freshmen - 22% - was in at least the second year of ninth grade. The report says 21.3% of freshmen had been held back because of inadequate academic performance. The good news: that was down from 22.3% a year earlier.
  • The faltering students have generally poor prospects of long-term success in school. "Over 40% of all district dropouts are in grade 9," the report says.
  • About 48% of ninth-graders in MPS were suspended at least once during 2004-'05, up from 44.4% in 2003-'04. The ninth-grade rate was the highest for any grade; in second place was eighth grade at 43.1%.
  • Ninth grade also is the low point in MPS for coming to school, with average attendance for students of 77% in 2004-'05. Next lowest was the 11th-grade average at 80%.
Deb Lindsey, director of assessment and accountability for MPS, said the figures underscored why MPS was making numerous changes in the way high schools are structured, particularly by creating small high schools. Administrators hope the smaller settings will lead to better behavior by students and more engagement with school life.
As one of the valet guys on this parking lot, I have a pretty good perspective here, and I can tell you that ninth is almost certainly everybody's least favorite grade, both for the adults and the kids. Nobody wants to teach freshmen, and no one sure as hell wants to be one.

The armchair psychology of the teacher's lounge diagnoses many different causes: hormones, inadequate middle schools, inattentive parents, cell phones, pot, poverty, a lack of promising post-secondary options for all but a handful of students, bad teachers, and more. Last Sunday, the paper editorialized about the nasty combination of Milwaukee's endemic poverty and the inherent difficulties of schooling in an urban district, and they're right to a great extent. My experience is that, for whatever reason, too many ninth-graders aren't looking forward far enough to see that there is a real and achievable goal: High school graduation in Milwaukee is not something our freshmen see as worthwhile. Looking around the community, how many high school graduates still don't have jobs? How many people do have jobs who lack the diploma?

At this point of transition, between middle schools where social promotion is very common (judging by how many of the freshman I teach are not reading or writing at grade level) and high school where students are lost without a four-year plan, students have to make a choice. The wrong one is much more fun, a lot less work, and, in their eyes, no less honorable with no less potential for success. There are things schools can be doing better--the idea of 9th-grade only schools, for example, might be worth studying--but, as usual, I see this as a community problem. You can't expect teachers and schools to undo the overwhelming message that a community sends. We can help, but Milwaukee itself needs to turn around. A community's schools are a reflection of the community. (Confidential to the editorial board: Hope is not a plan.) There is only so much that talk of standards and shuffling kids around and re-imagining what schools look like will get you.

I do my job, and I think I do it well. But I need support; I'm not going to move the cars off of this parking lot by myself.

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