Compared to other stages in childhood development, ninth grade has not traditionally been considered as a pivotal moment. But that’s starting to change, and with increasing frequency, researchers are pointing to ninth grade as a key year for children’s academic growth.
In a recent article from The Atlantic titled “Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year,” John Zaff, Director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University, refers to ninth grade as the make or break year. “It’s a time when the cognitive, emotional, and physical are all coming together,” he notes. Zaff adds that this perfect storm of developmental angst is compounded by the fact that kids are entering new school environments with greater autonomy and an increased workload to manage.
As if that weren’t enough, the stakes for successfully navigating ninth grade may also be higher than you think. In a 2017 study called The Predictive Power of Ninth-Grade GPA, researchers at the UChicago Consortium identified "a strong relationship" between a student’s GPA in ninth grade and his or her GPA during junior year, a critical year for college admissions. The researchers found that the majority of students in the study had almost identical grades for both years.
Is your child ready for high school?
So how do you know whether your child is equipped to handle the challenges of ninth grade in a high school environment, and what are your options when they need more time to get ready?
Fay’s Director of Counseling Services Vi-Anne Brown meets weekly with ninth graders as part of Fay’s Wellness curriculum, and she identifies several developmental benchmarks that parents should look for when assessing their child’s readiness for the rigors of high school. “A child’s ability to self-monitor is hugely important,” says Vi-Anne. “Pay attention to whether your child is able to put technology away at night before bedtime, get homework done without reminders, and whether he or she can stay organized without having someone prioritize assignments for them.”
A student embarking on high school should also demonstrate the ability to advocate for themselves, whether that means asking for extra help when material is challenging or seeking an extension on a project after an absence from school. Interestingly, Vi-Anne cautions that maturity can actually be a misleading indicator at this age. While a child may have the social maturity to carry on a conversation with adults, he or she may not have the critical academic maturity to independently make good decisions about how to allocate time.
Consider ninth grade as the “capstone” year of middle school
As a K-9 school, Fay is one of a few independent schools that offers a “capstone” ninth grade program. Experiencing ninth grade as the culminating year of middle school, rather than the bottom rung of high school, can be a great way for students to cement fundamental skills and build the confidence to move on and have a successful high school experience. “The best aspect of our ninth grade program is our blend of guided support and teaching independence,” says former Ninth Grade Dean and History Department Chair John Beloff. “We understand that these students are coming in as eighth graders and leaving as high school students, and we go the extra mile to ensure that they learn as much about themselves as learners as they do about the subject matter.”
Programs like Fay’s offer a challenging upper-level curriculum as well as leadership opportunities, curricular choices, and international service learning opportunities that are not available to most high school freshmen. For example, Fay’s ninth graders spend a week teaching English to local schoolchildren in the Dominican Republic through the nonprofit Outreach360. Behind all of these opportunities are the built-in support and safety nets that ninth graders, despite their clamor for independence, often need. “In some high schools it’s really the deep end of the pool, and the question becomes whether your child will sink or swim. We don’t do that to our kids,” says John. “Our ninth grade students are learning about their strengths and weaknesses, how they think, and what makes them successful,” says John. “If they can identify that now, they are going to be so much better off in high school, and they will likely be two to three steps ahead of their peers.”