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Giselle Molina works from home on school assignments during the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Giselle navigated her freshman year with assistance from the Ninth Grade Success Grant program at Center High School. Her mother, Dalia Molina, helps with an assignment. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The leap from eighth grade to ninth grade can be particularly daunting, with high stakes for students: the success or struggles that mark their first year of high school can predict whether they will graduate.

About a dozen of Colorado’s 178 school districts have implemented a year-old, state-funded program that provides extra support to incoming freshmen, with resources like tutoring and mentoring, to help them get in a groove with their academics. The program also helps teachers and staff track individual student progress so that they can identify kids who need additional attention.

But just as schools gained momentum in helping their new high schoolers, funding for the program was slashed as legislators scrambled to cut $3 billion from the budget with an economic crisis spurred by the coronavirus.

About $800,000 was budgeted annually for the Ninth Grade Success Grant Program, most of it flowing to some of the neediest schools in the state, with the highest drop-out rates. Without the money, programs will no longer be available to about 14,000 kids that Misti Ruthven, executive director of student pathways at the Colorado Department of Education, described as the state’s “most vulnerable students.”

Though it’s focused on ninth grade, the program funds resources that help make sure students are engaged and supported through the rest of high school, Ruthven said.

Giselle Molina works from home on school assignments during the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Giselle has participated in the Ninth Grade Success Grant program at Center High School in Center, Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One of the students who benefited from the transition program is Giselle Molina, a rising sophomore at Center High School who was more than nervous upon entering high school.

“I was actually very scared going into a new experience,” Giselle said.

The higher level of classes intimidated Giselle, 16, who is an English as a second language student, especially courses like algebra and honors language arts.

The Ninth Grade Success Grant program, which catered to all the school’s freshmen, helped her start high school on a strong note. Giselle said she performed better in ninth grade than in eighth grade, where she didn’t receive as much support.

Freshman year is foundational, said Katrina Ruggles, a school counselor in Center Consolidated School District 26JT in the San Luis Valley.

“It’s a critical year,” Ruggles said. “It sets up habits for all of their four years. It helps create a mindset that they are capable and able to be successful. It helps them create connections within the high school for support. It helps them feel like they belong in high school and that people care about them.”

At Center High School, more than 90% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, said Ruggles, who also manages some grants for the district, including the ninth grade program. About 92% of the school’s students are minorities and most of its students don’t have access to resources outside of school such as tutoring and mental health counseling.

Katrina Ruggles enjoying working at home during the COVID-19 virus. Ruggles is a professional school counselor in the middle and high schools of Center Consolidated School District 26JT. She is also the grant manager for the district and Giselle Molina’s school counselor. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Center High School began using the grant at the start of February to help 42 freshmen. 

The school hired a paraprofessional to focus specifically on working with freshman classes that had the least amount of support and were the most challenging, including math, science and language arts, Ruggles said.

The school is really just getting rolling with the program, which is what makes the prospective end of it sad, Ruggles said.

A Latino college student pursuing a career in teaching, the paraprofessional also served as a positive male role model for students, many of whom are being raised in single-parent homes, Ruggles said.

Freshmen like Giselle and her classmate, Xavier Padilla, 15, found a source of comfort in the paraprofessional.

Giselle said she turned to him when she was hesitant to talk to her teachers. He helped her schedule meetings with her teachers when she didn’t understand class content. He also would recommend other tools, like applications and online resources, to assist her with her academics.

Giselle said the paraprofessional related well to students at her school, having experienced many of the things they are going through. 

Xavier said he considered the paraprofessional a friend, one who could offer personal advice while also supporting him with his assignments. 

“It was kind of helpful for all of us in our freshman class to stay on task and to not freak out about assignments and such,” he said.

How do you track 500 freshmen?

Center High School received $120,000 for its first year of programming and was slated to get another $324,000 over three years. 

Center High School has also used the ninth grade grant dollars to provide after-school tutoring to students. Other funds went toward better tailoring services to the individual needs of students. Ruggles said the school also formed a team to look at data related to freshmen, including behavior, attendance and academic performance. Working with the school’s Response to Intervention team, teachers and administrators were able to identify students who needed extra support and pinpoint the underlying cause of their struggles.

While some students needed tutoring, others needed counseling and others were connected with a staff member who acted as a mentor, sometimes meeting with them twice a day, Ruggles said.

Giselle Molina, who benefitted from the Ninth Grade Success Grant program, gets help on schoolwork from her mother, Dalia Molina, in their home during the COVID-19 virus. Giselle is a student at Center High School in Center, Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Additionally, some ninth graders joined a youth advisory board along with students from higher grades to focus on a project centered around suicide prevention and building personal assets of strength. Students met weekly in small groups with an adviser to discuss their future goals and figure out how to achieve them. Freshmen on the youth advisory board also give input for a weekly advisory program for all ninth grade students.

The onset of the coronavirus changed how  Center High served its students, but as the school transitioned to remote learning, it made resources for freshmen available virtually and over the phone. Mentors and counselors were still able to connect with students virtually, advisers checked in with every single ninth grader each week through a phone call, and the paraprofessional remained accessible to freshmen by participating in virtual classes and holding individual virtual meetings.

At Poudre High School, where a quarter of freshmen are failing at any one time, Ninth Grade Success Grant money has helped the school more effectively use data it collects. There has been a big push to nudge seniors across the finish line, which is important, Principal Kathy Mackay said. However, the school is intently focused on freshman year, recognizing that the more support in place for those students, the greater likelihood they will stay engaged and graduate on time.

For the past four years, Poudre High School has structured courses for freshmen and sophomores similarly to how a middle school might, with cohorts of students taking classes from the same set of teachers who are divided into different pathways, or focus areas. That better enables teachers to track data and communicate about students. Teams of teachers meet every other week. 

Six pathways are framed around different disciplines, including engineering and design, arts and humanities, and entrepreneurship. The model is not typical in a high school setting, particularly not a large one like Poudre High School, which educates 1,800 kids, but it’s been really valuable and effective, Mackay said.

Grant dollars also supported a special coordinator at the high school who works alongside counselors, pulling up lists of students who are failing and arranging meetings with teachers to talk about how to address the needs of students who are failing.

Giselle Molina works from home on school assignments during the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Giselle received support from the Ninth Grade Success Grant program at Center High School. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The school had data before, but it now can narrow the scope into smaller groups of its 500 ninth grade students, with teams overseeing specific groups of kids and data.

Additionally, the grant — budgeted at about $416,000 over four years — has helped the school cover the cost of professional development for teachers so that they can better serve specific grade levels. It’s also provided mentoring opportunities and helped lead to the development of a program in which teachers have lunch with students who missed class, trying to understand what challenges they were facing, get to know them better and catch them up on lessons.

The school was getting that program going when the coronavirus took hold, but in its short run, it enhanced connections between students and teachers and helped with attendance, said Matthew Miltenberg, a school counselor and liaison to the multi-tiered systems of support process.

What happens to students if the program folds?

The chasm between eighth grade and ninth grade is one of the first times that schools see significant numbers of students dropping out of school, Ruthven, of CDE, said.

Students’ reasons for dropping out vary widely. Some may be intimidated by a new school with a larger student body. Others may feel it’s the first time they have a choice of whether to stay in school, Ruthven said. In some cases, students face family pressures and have to help contribute to their family’s finances. And other students may be unprepared for the transition to high-school-level work.

When students are failing classes their freshman year, they’re more likely to fail classes in subsequent years and are more likely to drop out, said Ruggles, who is involved with the program at Center High School. It’s a cascading effect.

The idea of losing funding for the grant program is devastating to Ruggles, as the grant has helped Center High School’s freshman class make some headway in academic achievement. With cuts across the board in education funding and with other grants, she isn’t sure how the school could keep the paraprofessional, continue the tutoring and mentoring programs or sustain the other systems it has put in place.

Ruggles said the program has made a difference for freshman students with attendance, behavior, homework completion and grades.

Giselle Molina, who started high school with help from the Ninth Grade Success Grant pr poses with her mother, Dalia Molina, in their home. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For instance, last year, when freshmen were eighth graders, their class’ average grade point average was 2.29. This past year, it increased to 2.65, which also exceeded the average GPA of last year’s freshman class, which was 2.2.

Poudre High School’s freshman class also made some strides. The number of F grades among ninth graders decreased during the fourth quarter, even as students transitioned to remote learning. Miltenberg said the school’s pathway structures helped mitigate the challenges brought on by that change.

Additionally, the overall pass rate jumped nearly 5% for ninth graders to 92.85% at the end of the year. The class’ average GPA increased as well, from 2.8 in the third quarter to 3.0 in the fourth quarter.

Poudre High School staff worry that without program funding, their students will lose the mentoring support and other important resources specific to individual kids.

Mackay said the loss of funding would also result in a fragmented approach to supporting freshmen, with some teachers already trained on how best to serve ninth graders and other teachers not yet trained. The school wouldn’t have the funding to get the latter group up to speed, she said.

Concern about impacts on graduation rates is also top of mind at both Poudre High School and Center High School.

Cassie Poncelow, a Poudre High School counselor and freshman transition counselor, said that students who are on track with credits at the end of their freshman year are four times more likely to graduate than a student who has not kept pace.

If the grant program disappears, schools like hers will be seeing lingering impacts for years to come, Poncelow said.

And for students like Giselle, continuing at Center High School without the resources enabled by the grant would mean a harder road to graduation.

“Half of us would have more trouble communicating with our teachers,” Giselle said, “and our grades would probably not be as high.”

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin