A stopwatch counts impatiently as a handful of teachers and administrators huddle in a side room at St. Helens High School. Every minute counts as the clock inches its way closer to 8AM – the start of regular school hours and the end of this Freshman Success meeting.
“We try to keep each discussion under ten minutes,” a staff member tells me. “The faster we are, the more students we can discuss before classes start; the more kids we discuss, the more students we help.”
Every other Wednesday from 7:15 to 8:00 AM, these seven educators work their way through a list of at-risk students, discussing recent academic performance, challenges the student may face, both in the classroom and out, and how they can best offer support in each case.
As St. Helens’ Freshman Success coach from the Oregon Center for High School Success, I’ve had a front row seat as they built this effort from the ground up over the past several months. The burgeoning program – one of many popping up across Oregon – is a groundbreaking approach to helping students succeed throughout high school by focusing like a laser on building strong academic habits and educational support during their freshman year.
First pioneered by researchers at the University of Chicago, Freshman Success programs (sometimes referred to as 9th Grade On-Track programs) identify potentially vulnerable students early, and rely on real-time data to track progress and adjust support according to each student’s unique needs. Researchers determined that a student who finishes their freshman year on track to graduate – meaning they earned a quarter of the credits needed to graduate, and received no more than one F in a core subject – are four times more likely to walk in a cap and gown than those who do not. Using this research, educators in Chicago were able to improve graduation rates by as many as 23 points in just four years. Now these practices are spreading across the country, and St. Helens is one of the districts leading the charge here in Oregon.
They’re about to have a lot of company in these efforts though, as 100 educators from across the Portland Metro area begin a two-day training session tomorrow on how to launch Freshman Success programs of their own. The event, which is sponsored by Stand for Children and the Oregon Center for High School Success, is bringing experts and practitioners who pioneered the policy at the University of Chicago here to Portland to share best practices and provide direct guidance to local teachers, school administrators and support staff. Then we’re taking this show on the road, and holding similar events across Oregon. By the end of June, educators from Astoria to Malheur, and Coos Bay to Hermiston will all have the chance to join in. The network we’re building is an opportunity for professional development, a support system for educators to help each other succeed, and ultimately, the chance to prevent future high schools dropouts from ever faltering in the first place.
The commitment that St. Helens – and the more than 60 other schools participating in these trainings – all have for helping their students succeed is vital in a state with the third worst graduation rate in the nation. Educators are doing their part, and lawmakers can as well by fully funding opportunities like Measure 98, which supports Freshman Success in every school district in the state. To learn more about Freshman Success programs, Freshman Success Network training opportunities, or Measure 98, please visit our website at www.highschoolsuccess.org.