A new school year brings lots of changes and challenges for kids of all ages. But if there’s one year that’s especially critical — and often the most unsettling — for students, it’s the 9th grade.
Ninth grade has become known as the “make or break” year of high school, because how students perform in the first months of their freshman year can determine whether they drop out or graduate. But the stakes don’t have to be that high, believes Hillcrest High Principal Greg Leavitt who test-piloted a summer boot camp this year to ease the transition for entering freshmen and put them on the path to excel their first year and beyond.
About 80 students attended the inaugural program where for 30 days they received four hours of daily instruction in math, science, English and geography. The voluntary program was a commitment for students and teachers who had to forgo their summer breaks. But students who completed the coursework will start high school ahead of their peers, with a quarter of an elective credit under their belts. On Friday at a special ceremony, they received certificates of completion. Those with perfect attendance, or who finished all their work on time, also received cash incentives of up to $400 provided by the United Way of Greater Salt Lake.
“A high school diploma is the ticket to the show of life,” Leavitt told students and their families. “There’s not a parent in here who doesn’t want their child to succeed.” But 9th grade is a period of struggle for many students. There’s the newness of the school, and teachers, and the fact that for the first time, students have to earn passing grades in some pretty tough classes. As a result, studies show, freshmen have lower grade point averages and more absences, failing grades and behavior referrals than their older peers.
In a house editorial, the Deseret News called the boot camp a cost-effective, "smart, sensible and innovative" fix for a persistent problem in education. “Improving the quality of public education in Utah has and will forever present unique challenges. Our demographics make it difficult to fund schools on a per-pupil basis as generously as do other states, even though we contribute a proportionately large percentage of public funds to education," reads the opinion piece. "The Canyons School District’s boot camp experiment is a commendable example of a tactical approach to dealing with a specific problem — one that happens to be at the heart of any education system’s principal mission — to make sure students who show up on the first day of school are still there when the bell rings on graduation day.”
Hillcrest worked with middle schools in its feeder system to identify students who would most benefit from the boot camp, and invited them to sign a contract saying they would show up each day. Roughly 88 percent honored the contract and finished the program. “The fact that these kids who face a lot of challenges in their lives came here and completed the rigorous coursework is a testament to their character,” said Leavitt. Some students gave their stipends to their parents to supplement family food budgets.
The boot camp is part of a larger, Board of Education-approved initiative to boost student achievement at Hillcrest by identifying struggling learners before they reach high school and offering them early supports. The investment is tangible proof of the Board’s commitment to Canyons School District’s mission of preparing all students for the rigors of college and careers, said Superintendent Jim Briscoe who advised students at Friday’s celebration to put aside the goal of graduation for now and focus on more immediate tasks.
“All I want you to do is get to school on time and get through the first eight weeks with no failing grades,” he said. People often set big college and career goals for themselves, and then get overwwhelmed by them because they neglect the intermediary steps, Briscoe explained while urging students to focus on the now. With small successes will come bigger successes, he added. “You came here during the summer while your buddies were skateboarding and at the swimming pool. Do you know what that tells me? It tells me that you have what it takes to succeed.”