By Cardell Orrin, Memphis Director, Stand for Children Tennessee
Research has shown that students who complete their freshman year on track—earning at least a quarter of the credits needed for graduation with no more than one “F” in a core course—are four times more likely to graduate on time than their off-track peers.
In fact, freshmen success is more predictive of high school graduation than race, ethnicity, poverty level, and previous test scores combined.
By focusing on ensuring that ninth-grade students are on track, we can substantially increase graduation rates in our community.
That’s why we established the Memphis Freshman Success Network (FSN) as part of the Center for High School Success. We started this as a pilot project with two schools in 2017 working with the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago and attending their National Freshman Success Institute. For the 2018-19 school year, we launched a local Freshman Success Institute to usher in the Memphis FSN as a full collaborative learning network of 13 schools from Shelby County Schools (with one school from the Achievement School District).
Schools in the network saw an combined 30 percentage point increase in the number of freshmen who are on track to graduate at the end of the third quarter compared to the same point in the previous school year.
As an education advocacy organization, we have seen great value and opportunity in launching into this new level of advocacy. After identifying the research and corresponding best practices and programs for on-track ninth-graders, we worked diligently to communicate the opportunity to district and school leaders, advocate for funding, and provide direct implementation support. That process continued into the 2019-20 planning and budget cycle for the expansion of FSN, but we will also advocate for all high schools to implement an intentional focus on ensuring freshman success, whether a part of FSN or not.
The Memphis FSN is unique for its inclusion in bringing together both traditional and charter public schools to learn and share with each other. We provide school leaders and ninth-grade educators with professional development, job-embedded coaching, access to an advanced data platform, and the technical assistance needed to develop and implement highly effective programs and practices for keeping ninth-grade students on the path to on-time graduation. Our Freshman Success Coach, Dr. Nina Reed, worked directly with school Freshman Success Team leads in areas such as reviewing data and preparing for team meetings (with a goal for at least bi-weekly meetings) to ensure that the focus was maintained between network meetings.
District and School-Level Leaders Pave the Way
This magnitude of success would not have been possible without one key ingredient: leadership. At the district level, this meant having champions like Shelby County Schools’ Deputy Superintendents Dr. Angela Whitelaw and Lin Johnson, who understood how a focus on freshmen success could help the district reach its goals and who could advocate effectively for making the Memphis FSN a priority. Thanks to district leadership, each traditional public school in the FSN received freshman success funds and autonomy to implement the core components of the program and additional initiatives, programs, and structures devised by its school-based freshmen success team.
In addition to paying for academic and non-academic supports for students such as targeted academic tutoring, early ACT tutoring and testing, college visits, and socio-emotional learning curricula, the school funds were used to provide stipends to compensate for the additional work that FSN leadership team members needed to do in order to make the implementation effective and ensure that freshman success team members could attend the quarterly FSN convenings.
School-level leadership also played a big role in the Memphis FSN’s first-year success. Participation in the FSN was not mandated by either Shelby County Schools or any charter school network; rather, each principal or school leader had to opt in to be part of the program. We hoped that this would ensure that each school leader involved in the network was fully committed to the concept, fully engaged in the process, and actively involved in implementation. Our goal was to have school administrators understand how the success of their ninth-graders aligned with broader school plans and be able to communicate to their respective teams the alignment of the FSN work in realizing those plans.
Lessons Learned Will Strengthen the Network in Year Two
We were excited that, in most schools, leadership established the FSN as a priority, which resulted in far greater student achievement gains than there would have been otherwise. While we got front-end buy-in from school leaders, we recognized throughout the year that we also need to work harder to ensure that they stay actively engaged throughout the year by attending portions of the quarterly network convenings.
In this first year, we held the Freshman Success Institute after the school year had started. This meant that we were halfway through the first semester before our Freshman Success Coach fully began to engage team leads and teams in the schools. It also meant that schools did not have the time to make adjustments based on what they learned in scheduling or other areas that might better support keeping ninth-graders on track.
For the upcoming school year, as we add nine new schools to the network, we are holding the Institute in the summer and hope that this will allow some opportunities for structural school adjustments and provide a stronger start to the school year for our coaches working with schools. We have also incorporated lessons learned into the agreements that we have with the district and our network schools, in addition to changes that will build in more of the successful practices learned from our first year.
Encouraged by what we’ve seen so far, we look forward to collaborating with all of our teams, current and new, toward even greater improvements in ninth-grade on-track rates in the new school year and growing the graduation potential for all of our students.