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VOL. 129 | NO. 146 | Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy Prepares for Debut

By Bill Dries

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A group of 213 children in Bartlett who are coming out of middle school and into a new academic year and system got an introduction last week to the Bartlett school that is a bridge between their middle schools and Bartlett High.

The Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy is on the campus of what had been Shadowlawn Middle School with its own faculty and staff just for freshmen.

The academy is more than a solution to space problems at Bartlett High, which is the only high school in the new Bartlett City Schools system that debuts Aug. 4.

The academy will remain however that space problem is worked out in future school years and future school system budgets.

John McDonald, the principal of the academy, said it is a way to improve the transition to high school as well as deal with a retention rate for ninth graders that can make those students more likely to drop out of high school altogether.

“It first of all separates students from upper-class influences. It separates students from the overwhelming social pressure that is associated with having to fit into a grade structure that spans ages 14 to 18,” McDonald said. “It’s not unusual for a freshman to walk into a high school on day one and be one of 2,000 to 3,000 kids. … Potentially you walk into your first-period class in high school and you are sitting there with literally an entire class full of people you don’t know.”

The ninth-grade academies began to appear more frequently in public education in America in the early 1990s.

“They are designed for students who are first-time freshmen,” said McDonald, who is expecting 600 freshmen next week, all of them first-time freshmen with Bartlett High School having a ninth-grade class of repeating freshmen.

“Hopefully what it does is it gives them another year to sort of define or find their identity,” McDonald said of the academy. “It also basically creates a peer group. So when they walk in the door in the 10th grade, they are walking in with an established peer group.”

And for the 213 ninth graders at the academy last week, there was a good dose of the Bartlett High School experience with the annual “Panther Camp” that high school chemistry teacher Laura Houston has organized for the past seven summers. It’s a reminder that high school on the Bartlett High campus is just a year away. The camp was led by upperclassmen and included school cheers, a scavenger hunt and an ice cream social.

Houston said the students are aware of the larger changes in school systems that begin with the school year, just as they were aware of the merger of the previous school year.

“I think they care at some level but kids are going to be kids,” she said. “They are going to be resilient. They are going to adjust to change. It’s we adults that know how things should run and when things don’t run so smooth, our red flags go up.”

Some parents may remember a transition to high school through junior high schools in the same building starting with grade seven.

“Today in terms of requirements by the state and federal governments, it’s really a whole different program,” said McDonald, who as a student attended a high school that had a junior high school attached. “To try to run a ninth grade in the same building as you run a seventh and eighth grade is really like running two different schools in the same building. … It’s not the ideal model.”

The academy will have the rigor of a high school and a similar schedule with six periods instead of seven and no study hall.

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