“It Gave Me Wings to Fly”

“It gave me wings to fly.”

That’s how Reynolds High School graduate Lizbeth Alvarado describes the school’s 9th Grade Counts program. When she joined the program the summer before her freshman year in 2011, Lizbeth became one of a handful at Reynolds to benefit from transition courses, personal interaction with her soon-to-be teachers, and individualized outreach from school staff designed to help her succeed in high school. The 9th Grade Counts program eases the transition into high school for students who may otherwise struggle with the changes, and it speaks volumes about the program that only two years after her own graduation, Lizbeth is back at Reynolds providing the same guidance to incoming freshman.

I met Lizbeth on a tour of three current 9th Grade Counts classrooms. I saw first-hand as incoming freshmen built rapport with their future teachers and adjusted to schoolwork at the high school level. I watched as teachers gained their students’ trust in return by investing so thoroughly in their success in the classroom. This guided transition is all thanks to a partnership between Reynolds and the Self Enhancement Institute (SEI), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping underserved youth realize their full potential. The collaboration, first facilitated by education non-profit All Hands Raised, relies on Reynolds to provide administrators and facilities to make the six-week summer program a reality, and SEI to provide staff and funding to make it a success.

Research shows that the academic foundation and student-teacher relationships forged in 9th Grade Counts and similar programs are vital. Students who are on-track to graduate after their first year of high school are four times more likely to walk in a cap and gown four years later. The challenge is reaching students early, and setting them up for success when a myriad of other factors could hold them back. That’s not easy in a large school like Reynolds, which welcomes 800 new freshmen every year. Last year alone, some 200 students applied for only 85 possible openings with 9th Grade Counts.

Fortunately, starting this year, Measure 98 is giving schools the opportunity to make new investments in freshmen success policies. Schools can use these additional resources to provide additional capacity for summer programs just like 9th Grade Counts, and hire counselors to provide more individualized support to students. They can develop the means to identify at-risk kids by analyzing attendance, grades, credits and disciplinary referrals. They can even establish an on-track data management system to monitor student progress, and implement policies in real-time to address problems like chronic absenteeism when they arise.

Nearly every school district in the state has already applied for funding, showing just how popular – and needed – the Measure and these policies are. Reynolds High School is leading the way for students like Lizbeth to succeed, but they’re also leading the way for other schools to follow suit with freshmen success programs of their own. By working together and embracing the opportunities in Measure 98, school administrators across the state are ensuring their students will thrive in high school and beyond.