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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) An increasing number of high schools in Utah are adding ninth-grade. The new Granger High School added ninth grade this school year bringing its enrollment up to about 2,900. Ninth-graders Madison Davidson, left, Alaniyan Tillman and Angel Sosa clean up their silk screen project in graphics class. Most ninth graders say that they like the extra class choices offered in high school.
More Utah high schools including ninth grade

Schools see academic, behavioral benefits in reconfiguring grades.

First Published Apr 18 2014 01:43 pm • Last Updated Apr 24 2014 07:47 am

West Valley City ­» Jenny Olsen did a lot of driving when her oldest son was in ninth grade.

Most days, she shuttled him from Valley Junior High to Granger High, either for his advanced math class, basketball or baseball practice.

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But now that ninth grade is part of the high school, the Granger PTA president won’t have to do that for her younger children.

"They’re already there, and they can start taking AP [Advanced Placement classes] and doing some of those things," Olsen said. The change, she said, will give her younger children more opportunities and put them in a graduation mindset early on.

Utah has long been somewhat unusual in the nation, with more than one-third of the state’s traditional high schools starting with 10th grade rather than ninth. But that’s changing. Granger was one of at least half a dozen large Utah high schools this year to switch from starting in 10th grade to starting in ninth grade. And more schools likely will make similar moves.

Many Utah high schools began excluding ninth-graders in the 1980s "out of sheer economics" as student populations grew, said Sydnee Dickson, director of teaching and learning at the State Office of Education.

"For many school districts, the capacity of the buildings would not hold ninth through 12th grade," Dickson said.

Now, however, freshmen are making a comeback at many high schools as populations in some areas dwindle, and in other areas, districts realign boundaries and build new schools. Many feel the academic advantages of putting ninth-graders in high school are too great to ignore.

"It feels disjointed for students, quite often, to be receiving high school credit yet reside in a junior high setting," Dickson said. Course requirements for graduation begin in ninth grade.

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Early results » Many, like Olsen, hope that sending teens to high school earlier will better prepare them for graduation.

"Emotionally and psychologically, when you walk into a high school as a ninth-grader, it’s really hard for you to not take that seriously and think, ‘I’m in high school now,’ " said Ben Horsley, Granite District spokesman.

Early data from the switch at Granger seems to bear that out. Granger officials created a ninth-grade academy this year to help freshmen make the transition. Freshmen take most of their classes in one part of the newly constructed high school building, where their lockers also are located. They also take a skills class to learn study habits, planning and goal setting, among other things, said Michele Callahan, principal of the West Valley City school’s freshman academy.

So far, ninth-graders have had 80 percent fewer suspensions this year at Granger than when they were in eighth grade at West Lake and Valley junior highs last year. Both of those schools are in West Valley City. Also, at this time last year, 71 percent of ninth-graders at the junior highs were on track to graduate, compared with 80 percent of ninth-graders at Granger this year. Grade point averages (GPAs) are also up among ninth-graders compared with their GPAs as eighth-graders in the junior highs.

"Ninth-graders seem to be taking high school a little more seriously now that they’re actually in high school," Horsley said. "There are some students who just being in that junior high environment, they act like junior high kids."

Granger High freshman Dayna Rasmussen, 15, said it’s easier to take high school seriously when you’re actually attending classes there instead of at a junior high.

"In junior high, it didn’t seem like you were really getting ready for that," Rasmussen said of graduation. "But in high school your teachers are pushing you every day."

More choices » Ninth-graders seem to behave particularly well when taking classes with older students, Callahan said.

"They don’t want to be judged," she said.

Other than some playful pushing between a couple of boys, it was difficult to tell which students were ninth-graders and which were older in teacher Marcia Chalmers’ graphic communications class at Granger on a recent day.

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