Utah school says adding ninth grade will boost grad rates
Jerry Haslam, principal at Granger High School, has a problem. But he also has a solution.
Just 60 percent of Granger's students are graduating, a rate that Haslam calls "not good." In 2011, Utah's statewide graduation rate was 76 percent.
But construction is under way on a new Granger High that can hold 2,400 students, a sizeable jump from the current enrollment of 1,650. By the 2013-14 school year, administrators hope to help fill the building by including ninth-graders.
"I want to see if I can do it. I want to see if I can improve the graduation rate and I think this format will do it," said Haslam of the four-year high school model. "We're trying to stabilize a student's education as much as possible. It just makes sense to have them all four years of their high school experience."
Last year, 219 of Granger's cohort of students in grades 9-12 dropped out, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
"In the ninth grade the reasons students drop out is because they don't make a connection with the adult in the building, they don't find something," Haslam said. "Being able to get these kids overs the four years, I think, is so important."
Most community members agree that moving ninth-graders into high school is a possible cure to the problem. Administrators at Granger High surveyed more than 400 students, parents, teachers, staff and community members over a two-month period and found 74 percent were in favor of the move.
Junior high students may not realize it, but ninth grade counts toward high school graduation and their grades may be a factor in getting into college.
"A lot of times the ninth grade is like their free year, it's their fun year," said parent Nancy Day, vice chair of the Granger community council, who favors the proposal. "I think that's what they're hoping will come about with this change, that they'll take it a little more serious."
Granite's Board of Education will vote Tuesday on the grade reconfiguration, but board members say it's really a community decision.
"Based on the way I look at it, it's a decision that should be driven by the community," said board member Julene Jolley, who represents the Granger neighborhood in West Valley City.
"This board is very, very supportive of letting communities determine as much as possible what goes on in their community schools," said board president Gayleen Gandy. "They have the community support to go ahead with this."
Handling change • Granite isn't the first district to consider making such a change, not only for Granger but possibly Kearns, Hunter and Cottonwood, which are in the early stages of investigating adding ninth grade.
Canyons School District's board decided in 2010 to reconfigure all grades. As of 2013-14, Canyons' middle schools will include grades sixth through eighth, and high schools will be nine through 12th.
"We're doing it for academic reasons, for greater academic rigor," said Canyons spokesperson Jeff Haney.
Making the change at Granger won't be a walk through the lunch line.
"Change is different. Change makes people look at things differently," said Granite superintendent Martin Bates.
As the first high school in Granite District to try and make the shift, Granger will face the challenge of bringing two new classes, ninth and 10th, into high school at the same time.
The two "feeder" junior highs, West Lake and Valley, will face staff, resource and scheduling changes. But Dave Holt, principal at Valley Junior, said seventh- and eighth-graders will benefit because administrators won't have to focus so much energy on high-school bound ninth-graders.
"I think it's a matter of how you're going to target your resources," said Holt."It's a different mind set and a different process."
Administrators acknowledge some parents have expressed concerns about bullying and "inappropriate" relationships between ninth- and 12th-graders. They said their research of other 9-12 high schools indicates neither will be a problem.
But ninth-graders at Granger will have access to a wider variety of classes, sports and clubs.
"I think they'll meet whatever challenges will come their way," said Teina Moore, a parent and the chair of Granger's community council. "I really think the positive will outweigh the things we're not expecting."
Bates said many Utah high schools don't include ninth grade simply because all four grades can't fit within the building. It's a housing issue, not an education issue, he said. "As the housing issue goes away the advantages for having the ninth-graders in the high school are significant."
Stephanie Day, a 14 year old ninth-grader at West Lake junior, is "excited and a little bit nervous" about becoming a high school student, even though she'll start at Granger in the 10th grade. Having to jump into high school a year earlier would "definitely" have been a big change, she said.
Haslam welcomes the challenge.
"I think it's best for kids," Haslam said, and it's "best for student learning."
The Granite Board of Education will vote Tuesday on whether to add ninth grade to Granger High School. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at district offices, 2500 S. State St.