How one WA school district boosts the crucial freshman year

Ninth-grade success has been correlated with graduation. Incoming freshmen at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma get a peek at high school life.

Students seated at desks

Anastasha Kathireson listens to Dean of Students Rosalia Burson lead their team in an exercise on day one of a two-day Jumpstart orientation program for incoming ninth graders at Mount Tahoma High School, Aug. 25, 2021. More than 200 students participated in the program, which is meant to help ease the transition to high school. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Mount Tahoma High School senior Jamie Nguyen was seated at a table in the middle of the school commons, surrounded by incoming freshmen and ready for any questions. She was also ready with a question of her own.

“Hey, nice shirt,” Nguyen called to Jazlin Luki, 14, who was wearing an old-school “Boyz n the Hood” tee. “Do you want to know more about ASB?”

Jazlin was one of 216 incoming students who came to the Mount Tahoma High School campus earlier this month to take part in Freshman Jumpstart. Activities included a clubs and sports fair with information tables on various school activities and a scavenger hunt that had students looking for school landmarks, such as the nurse’s office (hidden deep in the main office) and the skybridge that connects two wings of the school.

The emphasis at the annual event, which happens at all high schools in the Tacoma Public Schools, is not just about giving students a good start to their freshman year but also providing an additional tool to help them succeed in their four years of high school.

Students are introduced to their new high school campus, get information about clubs and sports, and meet people who can guide them in high school, such as their counselors. School officials in Tacoma and in many other districts across Washington have embraced the education research that shows what happens freshman year is directly linked to high school graduation.

“They get some familiarity,” school counselor Taylor Meyer said. “It’s a softer transition to getting back to school.”

Meyer, who gave a presentation on navigating the school’s counseling center, said the questions asked every year at Jumpstart are as basic as “Will I have a locker?” — and just get increasingly complicated from there.

But the queries hint at a larger question.

“They want to know, ‘What is the high school experience?’" Meyer said. "Like, ‘Can I make it?’”


Dean of Students Rosalia Burson gestures towards the gym as she gives her team a short tour of the school on day one of a two-day Jumpstart orientation program for incoming ninth graders at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, Aug. 25, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Janieya Keith takes a selfie with Jazlin Luki and Joel Juda to show they've found the library during a small group scavenger hunt challenge to find various locations in the school on the second day of the two-day Jumpstart orientation program at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma, Aug. 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

That question can loom large in the transition from middle school to high school. More than a decade ago, researchers at the University of Chicago showed that success in ninth grade, defined as not failing any freshman classes, was the biggest indicator that a student will graduate. The study found that between 70% and 80% of a group of 115,000 students who passed all their freshman year classes were able to graduate on time. Students who couldn’t keep up with their credits their first year of high school had a drastically decreased chance of graduation four years later, the study found.

Since then, there’s been an emphasis on giving students a strong start in their first year of high school, including here in Washington state.

One key is to drive home the importance of that transition year between middle school and high school.

“One challenge is really conceptualizing that grades are now attached to credit. And you have to earn the credit to earn that high school diploma. You’re four years away from that end goal. It doesn’t always immediately click,” said Nick Parks, Mount Tahoma’s assistant principal of ninth grade. “I think there often can be a disconnect coming into ninth grade, that there is this level of accountability.”

But it’s not just about A’s and F’s, he said.

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, it starts now.’ But also, ‘Welcome to this building and welcome to our culture,’” he said. “We want to make school a place where students want to be,” Parks said.

While a freshman might not realize it, engagement also plays an important role in staying on track, he said.

“The students who participate in clubs and athletics are more likely to graduate on time,” he said. “That’s not just a great way to get involved in (the) school community. It’s a great way to get on track for your learning.”

Students wearing masks file into the auditorium for a morning introduction session on day one of the Jumpstart orientation program at Mount Tahoma High School, Aug. 25, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Incoming senior Alma Palacios, 17, acting as a student leader for Jumpstart, speaks in Spanish to new student Oscar Silva on day one the Jumpstart orientation program at Mount Tahoma High School,  Aug. 25, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Jumpstart is not the only way that Mount Tahoma is focusing on freshmen. The school also has been putting the freshman class into learning groups of about 30 students who share a language arts and science teacher.

This strategy helps teachers work together to make sure that individual students can stay academically prepared throughout ninth grade, and provide help for a student who might be struggling.

Jumpstart, which happens before the school year begins, is voluntary, but this year, more than half the freshman class — as well as a handful of sophomores who are new to the campus —  took two days out of their summer to attend, the event’s biggest turnout in recent history.

For Parks, it showed the students’ excitement to get back to in-person learning after two academic years of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“Going into a more normally structured school year, to be honest, there was a bit more eagerness to get started, and to get students in school,” Parks said. He added: “There’s eagerness every year, but this year, there was more.”

That was true for Jazlin, the incoming freshman. She was ready to leave remote learning behind.

“I hated it,” said Jazlin, who joined the school’s volleyball team before school started. “I couldn’t learn what I needed to know.”

Jazlin, who has older siblings who attended Mount Tahoma, said that high school brings a new seriousness and new responsibilities.

“You’re getting older, and you’ve got to focus on a lot of things now, so you graduate,” she said. “It’s not like middle school.”

Incoming freshman Janieya Keith said that Jazlin got her to come to Freshman Jumpstart on its second day.

“I wanted to take a look at my new school,” Janieya said.

The upperclassmen who helped out had words of wisdom for the incoming freshmen.

Nguyen, who is in ASB leadership, encouraged the ninth graders to take the time to explore the opportunities that high school offers.

“I would say try everything,” Nguyen said. “You’re in ninth grade, guys, you still have three years left, and I think it's a good time to be vulnerable.”

“Some advice actually is to say, ‘Be chill,’” said senior Maurius Ramirez. “High school isn't nearly as scary as it sounds.”

Students line up to check in on day two of the Mount Tahoma High School Jumpstart orientation program, Aug. 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

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