High school teachers will tell you: middle school doesn’t really matter. But high school — beginning with ninth grade — really does.
Several years ago, officials at Oregon’s education department started keeping track of how many credits students were earning in ninth grade. Research had begun to show — and continues to demonstrate — that students who fall behind during that first year in high school often don’t catch back up. They fall behind, stay behind … and don’t graduate.
Oregon schools responded to the research by launching summer programs for incoming high school freshmen aimed at helping ease the transition from middle to high school by connecting students with staff and setting expectations for the next four years.
The Class Of 2025 — the cohort of 27 students OPB has been following since they were in first grade — is now at that critical transition to high school, and a number of the students in that class are taking part in a “Ninth Grade Counts” bridge program.
Research on Ninth Grade Counts from program partner Northwest Evaluation Association shows students who complete the program have better attendance and graduate at a higher rate. Students who complete the monthlong program also receive a high school credit.
Several students in OPB’s Class of 2025 are heading to David Douglas High School this fall, the largest high school in Oregon. That would be a big enough transition for these teenagers, but for some of them, they’ll be entering a school building for the first time since March 2020, when they were in 7th grade.
And unlike distance learning, or hybrid, the summer program was fully in-person, with classes for three to four hours, five days a week.
It was Class of 2025 student Kaylie’s first time back in school.
“It feels pretty weird because we’re back in-person fully, and we don’t have an option to do it online,” Kaylie said. “... It feels kind of weird to be at a whole other school.”
For teachers and students, a practice run for the fall
After a year mostly spent at home, some of the high school’s Ninth Grade Counts teachers may have been more excited to return to the classroom this summer. Like other school districts in Oregon, David Douglas transitioned to hybrid learning, with students at home and in the classroom simultaneously. In the David Douglas School District, a family survey showed more hesitancy in returning to school in-person last spring. Teachers had mixed feelings about it, too.
“Hybrid was like teaching online with a studio audience,” said English teacher Hilary Reed. “So awkward, so awkward.”
So when the opportunity to teach students in-person this summer came up, teachers jumped at the chance. It was Julia Toscano’s first summer, teaching English.
“It’s nice to have them in person,” Toscano said. “They were drawing, they were in journals, they were talking to each other, so it was actually really refreshing.”
For teachers like Toscano, it was a practice run for the fall — a chance to ease back into the classroom with a smaller group of students and less academically rigorous lessons. Over the day, students took math, English, an elective course, and advisory class, where they were focusing on getting to know other students and their new school.
“For us, we’re dusting the cobwebs with our classroom management, and just figuring out, how they’re now relearning how to socialize,” Toscano said.
Sitting next to her, teacher Mike Costello chimes in.
“And get used to not being on their phones all the time,” he added.
As much as Ninth Grade Counts was practice for the teachers, it was practice for the students too.
“I feel social again,” said Class of 2025 student Rayshawn.
In the program, students aren’t only seeing classmates, they’re meeting students from other schools around the district for the first time. Kaylie, who said she’s not good at socializing, still missed those interactions when she was at home.
“I thought that it would be so much fun online because I get to stay home and stuff, and I didn’t think I would miss seeing the people at school, but once I started doing it online, I kind of realized, oh, I took that for granted,” Kaylie said.
This year is Michael Theofelis’s fifth teaching Ninth Grade Counts. He noticed that it took longer for students to open up to their new peers at first.
“They’re always quiet on the first day, they don’t want to talk to other kids on the first day, and I totally get that, but it took longer to break that down a little bit, and have kids be willing to just, share something with the person next to them, especially if they didn’t get to pick that person,” Theofelis said.
But by the end, Theofelis and other teachers noticed students making new friends and building new relationships.
“I don’t know if they just knew each other from middle school, but I’ve seen some really cool relationships building in my class,” Toscano said. “They came into my class very shy and quiet, and now I see them eating lunch together. ... I think it’s really cool that they start high school with some friends.”
There are a couple of other things students relearned too.
Like classroom skills. Students were not at home in their room anymore, alone with siblings and pets. They were at desks, wearing masks and sitting next to their friends in crowded classrooms.
“I don’t think they’re behind as far as their skills, it was more just getting used to being in class and having to — I can’t turn the camera off in person, and text or take a nap or whatever,” Costello said.
Reed noticed students giving up more easily on assignments.
“I would say their stamina is behind,” Reed said. “It wasn’t that their writing skills are poorer than other years, but I’m just like, ‘give me one sentence.’ They seem to me quicker to give up on themselves, or sort of be afraid to even try. ... Getting them to commit ideas to paper seemed harder than it does usually.”
Class of 2025 student Osvaldo spent all last year at home, in comprehensive distance learning. He said the program helped him remember how to “do” school again.
“I think that’s a big part of it, to show how to do it again,” Osvaldo said.
With high school, higher expectations
During the school year, Mike Costello teaches Digital Literacy, a required class for all incoming freshmen.
“It’s kind of used as a transition course for freshmen,” Costello said. “We talk about growth mindset, goal setting, some career research, how to use a calendar, how to use their planner, we journal.”
During Ninth Grade Counts he taught financial literacy, a real-world math class that included one lesson on credit and debt.
Both Ninth Grade Counts and Digital Literacy are meant to prepare students for high school and the higher expectations they need to meet in order to graduate.
“In middle school they’re not held ... they’re not held responsible or accountable, they could get here with 0%,” Costello said. “So a lot of these kids are just used to being able to move on, move on, move on.”
Costello said part of what students need to learn is that high school comes with consequences.
“They have to get a “D” to pass, they have to show up, they have to do certain things so this is just a good kind of way to ... get our feet wet, get their feet wet and just kind of start learning some of our expectations and how they interact and what they need to do in high school,” he said.
With a mix of curriculum and learning expectations, students can hope to be a bit more ready to start high school than they were before. And after more than a year out of the brick and mortar classroom, students like Kaylie said it’s necessary.
“I’m also looking forward to getting a little head start with learning, actual learning stuff, because I missed quite a bit last year, too,” Kaylie said.
Like lots of Oregon students, she had technical problems with distance learning, which set her back.
“So I’m glad I get to catch up on that,” she said.
Looking ahead to the fall with caution
For students who completed Ninth Grade Counts, they’ll be coming to school knowing more than the location of their math class.
“When the school year begins, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially at this school,” Theofelis said.
David Douglas High School has over 200 staff members and last year, had 2,800 students.
“I think it can really benefit the kids to have a teacher, or grad mentor ... that they can hopefully connect with a little bit. I think that those sometimes are the things that end up, continue to pull a kid back to school,” Theofelis said.
“I told kids today, ‘if you have late lunch, you can come eat lunch in my room,’” Reed said. “Just having a place to go is good for them.”
During one interview with Class of 2025 student Anais, she spots Misty V’Marie, her sign language teacher.
“Ms. V’Marie!” she gasped and said loudly.
“Do some sign language!” V’Marie said back, telling Anais to show off some of the words she’s learned. They both laugh, and Anais signs several colors. It’s a class she took during Ninth Grade Counts, and something she wants to continue in high school.
Classmate Rayshawn said he thinks he’ll like high school more than middle school.
“I like the teachers a lot,” Rayshawn said.
Toscano and Reed said they hope these students come to school in the fall more confident.
The two teachers planned for the program together, and said they tried to incorporate confidence and self-love into their lessons.
But teachers still express concern about how the school year will be for students in the Class of 2025 at David Douglas High, and elsewhere.
“I think a lot of kids are going to feel really anxious, I think it’s going to be really uncomfortable,” Theofelis said.
“I’m a little fearful about it, truthfully. I think it’s never been harder to be forced into a classroom around a bunch of people you don’t know, and be asked to talk to them.”
He mentions other changes to students’ pandemic routines, like getting up early, and going into school.
“It’s just a lot of adjustments really fast, in addition to the adjustment of middle school to high school,” Theofelis said.
Theofelis and the other teachers are ready to help their students, but they also don’t yet know what they’ll be dealing with, and how living through a pandemic has affected students’ lives.
“I think that kids who have struggles at home had an exponentially worse time during COVID than kids who don’t. ... We don’t know what kids have been dealing with the last 18 months,” Reed said. “If you’ve been home and your parents are out of work or you’ve been struggling to make ends meet, you’re going to be coming to high school really with just a lot on your plate.”
Reed said English teachers will also be dealing with larger class sizes.
“The thought of having 30 kids in a classroom, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
Back-to-school plans around the state are starting to shape up. Schools in Oregon are expected to reopen for full-time, five day, in-person instruction. With the governor’s recent announcement, masks will be required.
The hallways at David Douglas will be full again, likely filled with a mix of apprehension and excitement about the return.
It’s unclear how COVID-19 will impact schools, but if last year is any indication, schools can expect to face student and staff quarantines based on exposure and vaccinations. A COVID-19 exposure during Ninth Grade Counts affected one cohort of students, but things remained unchanged for the majority of students in the program.
“We’re all just as anxious as they are about what to expect, ‘cause we’re just people, and we’re all just doing our best,” Reed said.
But despite the difficult transition ahead of them, excitement remains as the first day of school approaches.
Several Class of 2025 students said they’re looking forward to the opportunities that come with the new high school.
Class of 2025 student Osvaldo is looking forward to different classes, and making new friends. But there is one thing he’s worried about.
“I know the layout and where to go for all my classes, but I’m scared I’m going to walk too slowly or something,” Osvaldo said.
The large campus means walking outside, and the chance to get fresh air during the day. That’s what Rayshawn looks forward to.
“The freedom of just walking around,” he said.
But like her teachers, Kaylie’s excitement is mixed with a little anxiety, too.
“When I was in 8th grade, I thought that it was going to be super easy going into high school, and that it wasn’t a very big deal,” she said. “But now that it’s coming up, I’m a little nervous for it because I realized how big this is.”