Interview with PVHS Assistant Principal

Ninth Grade Success | 04/21/2021

Judith Martinez
Director of Colorado Center for High School Success

The partnership between our Center for High School Success (CHSS) and Prairie View High School (PVHS) began with a demonstration site visit to Chicago Public Schools in fall 2019. CHSS hosted the visit, attended by two pioneering PVHS assistant principals who observed key elements of the ninth-grade success approach in action and quickly recognized it was a fit for PVHS values and strategic plan. Amazingly, this year, PVHS launched their Freshman Academy, an initiative to support 9th graders in their transition to high school and throughout their Freshman year to ensure they are on track. This work is foundational as it sets the stage for a student’s high school career and postsecondary education.  Ninth graders are considered on-track if they failed no more than one course and have enough credits to become a sophomore.  This work is transformational as national statistics show Ontrack ninth graders are up to 4x more likely to graduate than their off-track peers.  

We’ve been taking a look at Prairie View’s ninth grade success initiative to share bright spots and key takeaways for others interested in the approach. We recently shared reflections of Freshman Academy student Liliana and her mom Cindy.  

Shelly Valerio the Assistant Principal at PVHS sat down with me over Zoom to reflect on what’s happened since her visit to Chicago Public Schools and discuss what it takes to develop a Freshman Academy. Here’s what she had to share about launching Freshman Academy in the middle of a pandemic:   

1) Begin with Leadership Support 

It was with support and encouragement from Principal Michael Burke, that set the conditions to develop the ninth grade success approach at Prairie View High School.  Shelly credits Principal Burke as “being the visionary” because he recognized the alignment with the school’s aim to create an environment where everyone is engaged in learning and gave the charge to “make it happen”.  

This point is grounded in research by the University of Chicago which indicates principals are most influential in creating safe and supportive environments and setting high, consistent and clear expectations for students.  Principals cultivate strong learning climates by supporting teacher and team leadership around school goals. 

2) Secure the buy in and commitment from your teachers before you get started. All the Prairie View teachers self-selected to work in the Freshman Academy.  

This year, PVHS educators adapted and made it work to support their students. Shelly credits the ninth grade success team of teachers’ specific and focused efforts for the positive program impacts.  

“The motivation of the teachers to make it work, the amount of effort they put into their kids, the empathy they had for the situation their kids were in, teachers found answers, not barriers.” 

Their efforts are having a positive effect. In the first semester of the year, PVHS had a freshman on track rate (FOT) of 90 percent, this means close to 300 PVHS ninth graders passed all their class, and 80 ninth grades passed all but one of their classes. This year’s first semester rate is notably higher than last year’s FOT rate of 76 percent, plus the high FOT rate comes at a time as other schools are seeing increases in course failure.    

 3) If you want to start a 9th Grade Success Program just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, just get started. 

“Anything is better than nothing. Even if it's five teachers that you have focusing on (9th graders), take the five teachers and start something and then tweak that and let it grow. Don't try to have every single piece taken care of because then you'll just spin, waiting for the perfection and that's not going to come. If we would have waited for perfection, we never would have launched this in a pandemic, but it has been a huge impact on our students and our school by just going ahead and doing it.” 

Assistant Principal Valerio’s “just do it” stance is well supported by improvement science. The book, Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better, applies improvement science to captures how “disciplined inquiry can be combined with the use of networks to identify, adapt, and successfully scale up promising interventions in education.” 

We are so grateful to Shelly for her time and commitment to this work and thank her for sharing her experience with us. Up next, we will be sharing what we learned from the 9th Grade Success team at PVHS. 

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