Bumping Grade 9 students up into High School from Junior High is an educational initiative fraught with potential risks. Over 20 years ago, Andy Hargreaves and Lorna Earl produced Rites of Passage (1990), an Ontario study of the Transition Years, Grades 6 to 9, flagging “the tragedy” and “anxiety” felt by adolescents “on transfer to high school.” Since W.J. Jordan’s 2001 AERA research paper on the “risk factors” for struggling students, educational policy-makers have also been much more alert to the “treacherous waters” posed by making a “fresh start” in high school.
A recent Halifax Regional School Board staff report, entitled “High School Grade Configuration” (September 18, 2012), attempted to take the plunge into those very waters. The skimpy two-page report, written by Danielle McNeil-Hessian recommended that all Grade 9 students in 12 different junior high schools be transferred to high school as soon as space becomes available, potentially affecting about 11,000 students entering the school system’s 15 high schools.
The proposed “grade reconfiguration” initiative caught most students and families in Atlantic Canada’s biggest school system almost completely off-guard — and sparked a swift public backlash. Most parents heard about it through a Halifax Chronicle Herald news report and elected public school trustees were flooded with e-mails and telephone calls. After the flurry of adverse reaction, the elected school board moved in record haste on September 26, 2012 to shelve the report, pending further research and a round of public consultations.
What prompted such a clumsy, poorly thought-out initiative? Senior administration initially claimed that it was a move in compliance with the 2012 Nova Scotia Kids & Learning First policy agenda, then backtracked at the public meeting. The rationale provided in the staff report offered only four terse reasons: The direction of the province, declining enrolments, the ability to consolidate space, and the opportunity to “maximize the expertise of teachers.”
The policy initiative was not a new idea but one favoured by the province’s educational facilities planners. It was actually the product of a 2007 policy paper prepared by by Dr. Jim Gunn for the NS Education Department that proposed Grade 9 to 12 “grade reconfiguration” as the silver bullet allowing the province to utilize “excess space capacity” and pave the way for the closure of some 40 under-enrolled public schools across the province.
Moving Grade 9s to High School in Halifax has been stalled, for the time being, but what lessons can be learned from this tactical retreat? “Putting students first” is the Kids & Learning First public mantra, but somehow it got lost in the rush to “reconfigure grades” and “fill holes” in high schools with “excess space capacity.”
Moving Grade 9s to High School without a broader, student-centred plan is doomed to failure. A mountain of North American educational research suggests that the “Transition Years” from Grades 6 to 9 or 10 are perhaps the “most critical juncture” in the students’ whole educational journey from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Ontario policy experts, Dr. Kate Tilleczek and Dr. Bruce Ferguson, produced a 2007 Literature Review that pointed in a completely different direction. Students in transition to high school face what they termed the potential for “both fresh starts and false starts.” It was a “potential tipping point” when young adolescents face life-altering questions of personal identity, torn by conflicting feelings, seemingly “both excited and anxious, both doubtful and hopeful….” Such tensions, they pointed out, are major factors cited in explaining why students “drop-out” before completing secondary school. The main stumbling block was that students find ” the shift from elementary to secondary school” difficult because, for most adolescents, it is “a journey from a relatively less demanding institution (socially and academically) to a relatively more demanding one.”
What can be learned from best practice in ensuring smooth, successful “student transitions” into high school? More recent Ontario research conducted by Tilleczek, Ferguson and a larger investigative team, yielded a comprehensive 353 page report ( September 2010), proposing a “nested transition” strategy covering a “span of grades” and covering two or three years of the students’ school experience.
The key research findings were captured in these short passages : “We can enact more enduring practices which facilitate the transition…… Grade 8 to 9 transitions should be considered “as long-term, temporal, and developmental processes.”… “nested transitions” work best for students ages 12 to 14, consistent with their stage of “adolescent development … Exemplary programs pay close attention to the “adolescent development school-fit”… “Risk factors” are high for dropping-out and steps need to be taken to cushion students and to alleviate the underlying problems – high school alienation, discouragement, and coping with the increasing academic pressures of high school.
Moving Grade 9 or any other grade alone to the next level, without a “Student Transitions” plan, flies in the face of the research and plain common sense. Studies of the “Transition Years” demonstrate that ‘what’s best for adolescents’ should be the priority. North American “Middle School” research, while mostly laudatory and not definitive, should not be simply cast aside in moving to K to 8 and 9 to 12 grade configuration models.
Transitioning is not “a one-time event” but a longer-term process. Moving all Grade 9s to High School is possible, but only if it’s properly planned and resourced to avert unneccessary student and family disruption. Schools need to minimize the “risk factors” and to build up “protective factors” such as multi-year bridging programs, providing peer and community supports, holding open dialogue discussions, offering student leadership skills development, and community-building induction activities.
What can be learned from the recent Halifax School Board “Bumping -Up the Grade 9s” fiasco? Why do facilities planning criteria come to hold sway over “putting students first” considerations when it comes to “Grade Configuration” in junior and senior high school? If school systems are unprepared to properly support grade reconfiguration initiatives, then why are they being undertaken in school districts across Canada and elsewhere?