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Freshman transformation: Snoqualmie Valley teachers, administrators see growth, academic solutions in 9th grade campus

Ninth grader Rory Walter hefts a barbell Monday, Jan. 10, in the Mount Si High School weight room. Freshman life will change in 2013 with an all-ninth-grade academy, and student opinion is mixed. “The atmosphere, the intensity of upperclassmen make you want to work harder,” Walter says. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Ninth grader Rory Walter hefts a barbell Monday, Jan. 10, in the Mount Si High School weight room. Freshman life will change in 2013 with an all-ninth-grade academy, and student opinion is mixed. “The atmosphere, the intensity of upperclassmen make you want to work harder,” Walter says.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

It's first lunch period at Mount Si High School, and two costumed "butt-heads" are circulating the cafeteria, counseling against tobacco use. Around the corner, a student is doing push-ups while an Army recruiter counts them off. Students are eating, talking, texting, studying. A small group of freshmen confers along one wall, and they want to clear a few things up right now.

"We're not unpopular, if that's what you're thinking," Natalie Holmes announced. As for the commonly-held belief that freshman year is a stressful blur of fear and hazing, "That's a lie."

Freshman culture will soon see big changes in the Snoqualmie Valley School District. In 2013, a freshman-only campus will open in today's Snoqualmie Middle School.

Holmes and company won't benefit from the changes, but Anne Stedman thinks that many students, starting with today's sixth graders, will.

Stedman is a North Bend parent, and a member of the High School Study Education Committee which recommended creating the freshman campus in what is now Snoqualmie Middle School. She thinks the committee's work last spring and summer will improve education for all high school students.

"We had this new and incredible opportunity," on the committee, Stedman said. Although their task was simply to recommend ways to use SMS to reduce crowding at the 1,500-student high school, she said they soon began to look at the bigger picture.

"We started asking, are we going to move 400 or 500 kids across the street, or are we going to change the way we deliver education and take a 21st century approach?" she said. They considered many different specialized curriculae from languages and culinary arts to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school, examining the feasibility. "It was about how we were going to deliver high school education, and yes, it would start with the ninth grade."

Handling growth

The process actually started about five years ago, when the Snoqualmie Valley School District saw 7-percent increases in enrollment for several consecutive years. At that rate, the district projected almost 3,500 students in grades 9-12 within 15 years (it's since dropped to about 2,500, including 600 freshman, because of the economic recession). Proposals to build a new high school were rejected twice in 2007 in the form of a $209 million bond issue, and once in 2008, a $189 million bond. But the voters' rejection was not resounding.

"We had three consecutive bonds fail by about 100 votes," said Randy Taylor, Mount Si High School principal. Because the bonds had to pass with a supermajority of one vote more than 60 percent they failed, but it was clear to district officials that "the majority of the community wanted it."

The district then created a committee to find another approach to solve the district's space problem -- Mount Si High School has a capacity of only 1,725. They met for 18 months and determined that annexing the nearby SMS was the best option for the high school. Meanwhile, enrollment continued to creep up. Classrooms and hallways gradually got crowded, more students were getting tardy slips, and "a thousand different tragedies happened every day," said Mount Si teacher Chris Jackson.

He's not making light of the situation, though.

"Tell you what, as a teacher, I don't like being in the hallways, either." Jackson and advisor Joe Galagan, who both served on the High School Study Education Committee, agreed that as the student population expanded at the high school, so did the cracks that students might fall through. They also agreed that a lot of the students who do fall through are freshmen.

"We have more freshmen who earn Fs than any other grade level," said Jackson, and not just at Mount Si, but nationally. "Freshmen struggle," he said. "Part of the problem is maturity, but not all of it."

"Some of these ninth graders are just not ready for the high school environment," Galagan added.

Most freshman are ready, Galagan says, but even if they have the self-sufficiency and organization they'll need for high school, it's still a big leap. As an incoming freshman, "You're now working toward the completion of your diploma, and possibly going to college," he explained.

Is it too much responsibility for 13- and 14-year-olds?

"It's obvious that what we do doesn't work for some ninth graders," Jackson said.

For the past year and a half, Mount Si High School has been changing what it does for ninth graders, by introducing team-teaching, a central location in portable classrooms for core curriculum, and a generally more nurturing atmosphere.

"We have been, for several years now, looking at the ninth grade as a special focus for improving learning.... We felt that we were kind of losing touch with our ninth graders" said Taylor.

The High School Study Education Committee's unanimous recommendation to create a freshman campus aligned exactly with district goals for freshman education. Currently, the district is phasing in the changes in a scaffold approach, but by the time the freshman learning center, opens in 2013, the high school will have a good working model, Taylor says. He envisions SMS as a satellite freshman learning center, with full access to the sports, advanced classes and extra-curricular activities of Mount Si High School.

"The proximity of the high school for the ninth graders in that campus will be a tremendous advantage," Taylor said.

Another advantage, according to Galagan, is that students will also have some autonomy.

"They're going to have their own student government in their own school," he said.

Back at the high school, Assistant Superintendent Don McConkey sees a better learning environment for the upperclassmen, too, with more room to grow and work.

"That's the best we could imagine for all our students, at this point" he said. However, he emphasized that SMS would still be a part of Mount Si. "There's a notion that (the freshman learning center) is going to be a separate campus. That is not the case," he said.

Issaquah's experience

Issaquah Principal Dana Baily is a firm believer in the freshman-campus concept, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because she's seen it work. As principal of the Issaquah District's freshman campus all five years that it was open, she proudly talks about the school-wide grade point average that her students maintained, usually between 3.0 and 3.25.

"That's every semester, every student," she said.

The 900-student campus opened in 2005, with a hand-picked, committed staff that both Baily and Issaquah's Communications Director Sara Niegowski feel was the main contributor to the school's success.

"It was a campus just extremely dedicated to its kids," Niegowski said.

Before the campus opened, Baily interviewed and hired every one of the 50 teachers. Her focus was specifically on creating a "uniquely perfect learning environment" for freshman education. Her teachers understood that freshmen were all over the map socially, emotionally and intellectually, but "it's going to be weird, they're going to be crazy, and we're going to have fun with it," she said.

Teachers developed close relationships with their students, and individually followed up with parents when students fell behind. It was a huge and time-consuming task administratively, but Baily felt that it paid off for the students. That, plus her decision that no student would be allowed to fail in the first quarter.

"If you start high school well, you have a really good chance of holding onto your GPA," she said.

Parents may have been reluctant to accept the transition at first, and there were some detractors, Niegowski said. Some people felt the lack of upperclassmen's positive influences affected freshmen and only delayed their entry to high school by a year. However, the campus was not a failed experiment.

"The ... reason we created it was the same reason we turned it back into a middle school again, capacity needs," Niegowski said.

Baily was "heartbroken" that the campus closed, and has heard from many parents who miss it, as well. She is still committed to the concept, though, and so has advised Snoqualmie Valley's committees, staff and board on how to implement a freshman campus. She has also offered her ongoing support.

Snoqualmie Valley School District plans to open its freshman campus in the SMS building in the fall of 2013, and hopes to build a replacement middle school on Snoqualmie Ridge with a $56 million bond that comes before voters Feb. 8.

See next week's Valley Record for more information on the effects of the bond vote on middle schools in the district.

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