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Ninth grade center engages students to keep them on track
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Erik Chavez listens to his teacher during class Thursday in the Ninth Grade Center at Gainesville High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Some phrases come up repeatedly when Misty Freeman talked about Gainesville’s Ninth Grade Center, a new program this year.

“Meet them where they are.”

Instruction that is “hands-on, engaged, interactive.”

“Where are you and what can we do to help get you there?”

Freeman used those phrases to emphasize what the center is trying to do. The ultimate, she says: “Our goal is to move them from ninth grade to 10th grade.”

Freeman explained the center was started because “data says the ninth grade is the most critical year of high school” for attendance, grades or behavior problems.

The 667 freshmen are “in class, engaged; they’re learning; they know high school expectations,” Freeman said. “They know what we expect, and if they get off track, we get them back on track.”

“If you have good instruction — engaged, hands-on — there won’t be behavior problems,” she said.

Back to that goal, “if they can get out of the ninth grade with the credits to be sophomores, your odds of graduation just skyrocketed,” she said.

“My expectation is that we will drop the rate of the repeaters by half or more,” she said Thursday, adding confidently she expects to meet that.

Gainesville Superintendent Wanda Creel said recently in an interview that the system’s graduation rate for 2015 was 79.5,  an increase of 13 percent. But she added the work with individual students to aim for graduation should start earlier.

Freeman said the system is beginning to talk with students and parents about graduation, credits and course of study in the sixth grade. Even in elementary school, she said, students learn about potential careers.

Details plainly are important to Freeman. She talked about students getting to class on time, with seven minutes between classes, and the feasibility of that on the Gainesville campus, which has 13 buildings.

The freshmen take classes in multiple buildings, not just the center. Freeman said she went with students to the far point of the campus, the performing arts center. They use the “STOMP” path — Strategically Taking Ownership in Making Progress — which has elephant prints for the school’s Red Elephant mascot.

Students can get to the closest wing of the Ninth Grade Center in seven minutes, she said, but not to the most distant area. For those with classes at the extremes, Freeman said, they get a “grace period” of three minutes.

Students also have “instructional focus,” a 27-minute period daily during which they can get remedial instruction, advanced curriculum or “just relearn — sometimes you don’t get it the first time,” Freeman said.

Students “go to the place that they need, or want — some of it is want” for that period. The students and faculty all use Google classroom, Freeman said. It allows teachers to post their notes, instructions for work and comments for the students. The school also has computers students may check out for access to the documents.

The school’s “maker space” serves a variety of needs. “This doesn’t always look like this,” Freeman said, explaining it is reconfigured for different projects.

She noted that a literature course made 3-D creations to represent part of “Romeo & Juliet.” They used those figures in explaining that aspect of the play to their classmates, she said. The theater group from Brenau University also visited and demonstrated sword fights from the play. Students participated based on correct answers about the play.

Ed Nemec, technology guru for the center, works with the students in the “maker space,” configuring technology for different projects.

Teachers are conscious of teens’ attention spans. Freeman said research shows teenagers focus on a subject for the period of “their age plus one minute.” As a result, teachers are told to change the focus of a class every 20 minutes to keep students’ attention.

In a robotics class, students were in small groups working on different aspects of a problem. One trio of boys was putting its robot together. Another group was testing whether its robot could perform a figure 8 and pick up an empty water bottle. A third group worked on software on a computer.

In a math class, students wandered from place to place, seemingly at random. They were doing a “carousel” exercise, finding a problem, answering it and moving to the next one.

Teacher Katie Fox explained the students moved around the room and compiled answers on a sheet for her to check. The exercise provides movement for the kids and tests their math knowledge.

One change for the next school year is to combine the school’s AP human geography class with one on current issues and make it a year-long course. The school is on a block schedule, which means most classes are one semester long.

Freeman said the change is because of the “intense amount of homework and reading” in the class. “They need more time to process it because it’s a college level class, and these kids are 14.

“Wherever they’re going, whatever they’re doing,” Freeman said, the center’s goal is to meet individual student needs, always focusing on helping them graduate from high school.