Edison ninth-graders Sheliah Milligan and Arlandreia Palmer work on a lab assignment in Ryan Terpening's science class. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Edison ninth-graders Sheliah Milligan and Arlandreia Palmer work on a lab assignment in Ryan Terpening's science class. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Edison sees dramatic improvement in ninth-grade performance

Updated: February 6, 2017 - 10:52 am

Course-failure rate dipped dramatically, especially in science

Ninth-graders sometimes struggle when entering high school, and that was especially the case last year at Edison High School, where more than half the school’s ninth-graders failed a first-quarter class.

The school saw a dramatic turnaround in ninth-grade performance in the first quarter this year, however, thanks to several new approaches.

Edison created a class called Approaches to Learning, which teaches students skills such as self-management, communication and planning for the future. It also instituted ninth-grade teams, or groups of students who share the same group of core teachers for each class. They gave those teachers a common prep time to talk more in-depth about issues they have with students and how to solve them.

“I feel like we’re more unified and really able to address issues for students who might be struggling,” ninth-grade science teacher Ryan Terpening said.

The results were encouraging. Thirty percent of Edison ninth-graders failed a class in the first quarter this year, compared to 55 percent last year. The drop was starkest in science, where 23 percent of students failed the first quarter this year, compared to 57 percent last year.

Ninth-grade science is a mix of physics, chemistry, earth science and astronomy, laying the groundwork of future high school science classes. Before last year, Minneapolis ninth-graders took a semester of biology and a semester of physics.

Last year was also the first year Edison implemented proficiency-based grading, a system by which kids are graded on what they’ve learned instead of completing an assignment. Ninth-grade science teacher John Holmlund said schools typically roll that out over a two- to three-year period, but Minneapolis did it in one year.

“That was a struggle for some students,” he said.

Edison Principal Eryn Warne said that students in the past could get passing grades if they were “good at school,” even if they didn’t fully understand the concepts. Now, however, students are assessed on what they’ve learned, not on attendance or participation.

“We’re trying to create that growth mindset in kids where if you don’t get it right every time, there’s opportunities to get it and be reassessed,” she said.

Districtwide approach

High schools across the district are taking this team-based approach with the help of the district’s On-Track system. The new system also allows teachers and the teams to better track student data, allowing them to highlight issues and record effective interventions.

Edison’s ninth-grade science students saw the biggest percentage-point drop in course failure from quarter one of 2016 to quarter one of 2017. But the district as a whole saw a six percentage-point drop in ninth-grade course failure.

Terpening said he stresses that ninth-grade physical science is an introductory course and said he’s trying to hook kids and make learning fun for them.

“We’re not going to memorize the periodic table,” he said, noting that he tries to make learning hands-on and interesting.

He said the teams encourage students to do better in school and give them more optimism. In past years, teachers didn’t have enough time to figure out which teachers would be effective at reaching which students. This year, however, the teachers can figure out which students they connect with and share those strategies with their colleagues.

Students are buying into the teams, too, Holmlund added, something the teachers didn’t see last year. He said there’s been a “critical mass” of students getting social and emotional support this year, noting the impact of the new Approaches to Learning class.

Both he and Terpening pointed to the teams as the biggest reason for the turnaround, however.

“Our students feel continuity,” Terpening said, “and I think that has really made the biggest impact.”

Erin Ridley, who was a first-year teacher last year, said she learned that students’ attention spans are short and that the biggest challenge was learning how the students retain information.

Teachers can also struggle, Ridley said, with students who just give up on a task, despite having the mental wherewithal to complete it. She said the ninth-grade teams have helped Edison teachers across subject lines and that science teachers have tried to make their classes more hands on.

“Our students here, from what I’ve learned, need a lot of help with understanding why,” she said. “We’re trying to make that a simple jump for them so that they have a reason for why we’re learning about Newtown’s Laws or energy.”