It’s the freshmen, it’s always the freshmen

May 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Recently, Milwaukee Public Schools Regional Superintendent Orlando Ramos was reported to be a finalist for several school district superintendent positions around the country.

Most MPS “regionals” supervise geographical areas — East, Southwest, Central, and Northwest. Not Ramos. He heads the High School region, which means he has the worst job in MPS.

As the person who oversees MPS high schools, Ramos is accountable for students at the end of 12 years’ worth of MPS education, but he controls only four of them.

The headline statistic that Ramos (and often MPS) is judged on is the district’s graduation rate.

With 83 percent of students graduating after their fourth year of high school in 2014-15, America as a whole was at an historic high, according to federal data. Just 20 years ago, that number was 71 percent. (Data from the 2015-2016 year is not yet available.)

For MPS, the 2014-15 graduation rate was only 59 percent. Worse, in Wisconsin, the gap between the white and black graduation rates is 27 percentage points, the widest in the nation, according to the Feds. In MPS, where the majority of Wisconsin’s black students attend school, the gap is 23 points: only 56 percent of black students in MPS graduate in four years, compared 69 percent of white students.

MPS does better with its six-year rate, giving students two more years to finish high school or an alternate program like GED. In 2014-15, our six-year rate was 72 percent, still terrible but closer to a respectable number.

MPS is not alone. Urban districts nationwide struggle with graduation rates and gaps, especially between black and white graduates, though obviously many urban districts were able to overcome some challenges that MPS hasn’t.

For example, an April article in Education Week detailed how the Chicago Public Schools system was able to boost its graduation rate from fewer than half in 2007 to 70 percent in 2014-15.

Working with researchers from the University of Chicago, CPS identified six keys to boosting graduation rates: Ease the transition from 8th to 9th grade. Boost attendance. Reduce out-of-school suspensions. Hold high standards for grades and achievement. Build school communities that take collective responsibility for student success. Use early-warning indicators to identify students who are off-track as soon as possible.

I can sum that all up in a single word: freshmen.

True, the “ease the transitions” plank of that platform explicitly refers to 9th graders. But the others all do implicitly, and I’ll return to Milwaukee to explain how, beginning with attendance.

While MPS has an overall 89 percent attendance rate, meaning eight of every nine students are in school on any given day, absences are not spread equally among all students.

In Milwaukee, 46 percent of students are habitually truant, meaning they miss 10 days or more in a year. At that point, likely graduation rates fall quickly to below 60 percent. At 20 days absent — just one absence every other week — graduation rates fall below 50 percent.

The worst attendance rate in MPS, a tepid 78 percent, belongs to freshmen, and fully 65 percent of freshmen are habitually truant.

The University of Chicago researchers note that “missing as few as five days per semester can make a student less likely to graduate from high school.”

Ninth grade also leads in suspensions. In 2014-15, 11 percent of all MPS students were suspended at least once. But 22 percent of freshmen were suspended, double the average. Freshmen also comprised 40 percent of all expelled students.

And so on. MPS freshmen come into high school well below grade level. On 2015-2016 state tests, only 11 percent of MPS 8th graders were proficient or higher in math (compared to 36 percent statewide) and 19 percent in English (40 percent statewide). It’s hard to have high standards for freshmen when so many struggle to meet the lower standards of middle school.

Freshmen grade point averages are also worse than those of their peers. In the most recent year that I could find data for, 2011-12 when MPS self-published a district report card, freshmen earned a sad 1.52 GPA on a four-point scale. The average for seniors, by comparison, was a 2.2. (Current data were not available from MPS by press time)

MPS 9th grade has higher enrollment than any other grade K-12 school. As the low GPAs, poor attendance, and high suspension rates suggest, many students repeat 9th grade. The exact number isn’t available in state data, but compared to 8th-grade enrollment, it looks like around 2,000 of the district’s nearly 7,000 freshmen are there for the second or third time. Freshmen, then, make up almost two-thirds of all MPS students held back a grade in a given year.

What’s the Answer?

Chicago has improved its success rate by paying attention to the factors listed above, and implementing freshmen families or academies, meaning a small group of teachers shares the 9th-grade class and can work more proactively, and faster, to intervene when students start falling behind. Some MPS schools do that now — including Bay View High School — and more will institute the program next fall.

MPS has made other changes, such as moving the start of high school to mid-August in order to minimize the “summer slide.”

But Chicago also does something desperately needed here. According to the University of Chicago group supporting changes in CPS, “students with low attendance and grades in middle school [are] flagged for early intervention before entering high school” (my italics).

In addition to sending kids on to high school without anything like 8th-grade mastery, MPS middle schools and K-8s have no good way to communicate all the red flags and supports needed for members of a high school’s incoming class.

Every year I watch as high-risk students sit in class — for more than a month — until the first round of district screening tests are completed.

Then, finally, five or six wasted weeks into the school year, students are placed in intervention classes or referred for special education services. That is, assuming the school even has those supports available, having not been informed beforehand that they would be needed.

This is why Orlando Ramos has the worst job in MPS. Sure, he can take credit for great MPS schools that always graduate world-class scholars and make it into various national top-schools lists. But he also has to manage the ongoing mess that is Milwaukee’s freshman class, with no ability to influence who makes up that class or what happens to them before they enter his region.

The district’s high school region is just two years old, and maybe the reorganization that created it will yield results eventually. For now, though, you couldn’t pay me enough to take on an impossible task like that.

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all data in this column are from the most recent statistics on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website.

Jay Bullock, who teaches English at Bay View High School, has approximately the 9,728th worst job in MPS. Email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.

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