Exclusive data: Freshmen, held back during pandemic, fuel ‘bulge’ in 9th grade enrollment

Learn4Life, a nationwide network of charter schools, typically caters to older teens who struggle to accumulate enough credits to graduate. But when a new site opened in San Antonio this school year, principal Crissy Franco received an unusual number of applications from 14- and 15-year-old students.

They included ninth graders who got no credit in their first semester and those who should have been in 10th grade but were out of school for a year.

“Normally, you don’t steer young kids toward dropout recovery,” Franco said. “Some of them are like, ‘What’s a credit?'”

Crissy Franco, left, Principal of Learn4Life in San Antonio, Texas, and Graciano Garza, a student who graduated in December, at the school’s August 2021 opening. (Learn4Life at Edgewood Independent School District)

Those students who were held back are among the reasons Texas saw a 9% increase in its freshman class this year, more than four times the state’s annual growth rate before the pandemic.

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This pattern has been demonstrated in more than a dozen states, according to registration data compiled by Burbio, an information services company, and shared exclusively with The 74.

The new data, from 35 states and the District of Columbia, adds to the complicated picture of student comings and goings in the age of COVID. With many young children who delayed kindergarten and kindergarten during school closures and are now returning to the education system, an increase in enrollment in the early grades was expected. But 15 states and DC saw growth of at least 5% in ninth graders from 2020-21, and in a few states, including New Mexico and North Carolina, the increase in freshmen has far exceeded that of kindergarten children.


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While the return of families to public schools has helped growth in ninth grade this year, retention rates have nearly doubled in some states and districts, and educators don’t expect next year to be much. much better.

“We’re a generation that’s going to have people with two-year gaps in their education,” said Jeffrey Cole, principal of Winston County High, a rural Alabama school midway between Huntsville and Birmingham.

If freshmen fail only two terms, Cole usually moves them to 10th grade. But for the first time in 19 years as principal, he has students failing all four terms. He thinks they should have stayed in eighth grade. Across the state, ninth-grade enrollment has jumped at a much higher rate than before the pandemic.

Districts often see a “bulge” in the first year when students don’t pass enough courses to move on, said Eric Wearne, director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta. But he added that it’s no surprise that COVID disruptions and remote learning have made matters worse.

“The students were in ninth grade,” he said, “and the COVID situation was so difficult that more of them than usual didn’t earn enough credits to be considered grade 10.and graders again.

Retention data in some states and districts confirms this. Figures from last fall show that 18% of ninth-graders in the Houston Independent School District repeated the year, significantly higher than the district’s pre-pandemic rate of 10%. And in North Carolina, more than 16% of last year’s freshman class were retained, about double the rate in previous years. Rural Maryland district officials in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also saw higher retention rates this year.


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The majority of states where ninth-grade enrollment has exceeded 5% are concentrated in the South, where they have “well-defined promotion criteria” for freshmen, such as course-leaving exams, Robert explained. Balfanz, who directs the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Such policies were widely implemented in the early 2000s at the start of the accountability-driven No Child Left Behind era, but have since been suspended in many states.

What hasn’t changed, he says, is that students still need to earn enough credits to graduate.

“It’s the long tail of the pandemic,” he said. “This will impact graduation rates three years from now.”

He added that during remote learning, high school students were more likely to have homework without live instruction and had to “manage the execution of the work themselves.” With many high schools canceling orientation in the fall of 2020, he said rising ninth-graders might not have fully understood the consequences of failing a class.

New Mexico is among the states where the increase in ninth graders is higher than in kindergarten. (Burbio)

“Fallen off the radar”

The increase in retention is an example of how the pandemic has altered existing patterns that enrollment forecasters use to help districts plan for the future. In his work with school districts, Jerry Oelerich, principal analyst at consulting firm Flo-Analytics, explains the fact that 2007 – when most of that year’s ninth graders were born – was a record year for births. That alone, however, doesn’t fully explain the large increases some states are seeing in ninth grade, Oelerich said.

Private school enrollment and home school also increased last year. But students often return to traditional high schools to play sports. And many parents decide they are not cut out to teach high school students.

“Their expertise is sort of exhausted,” said Kent Martin, principal analyst at Flo-Analytics and a former teacher and administrator in Washington state. “You really have to be a content expert, like a teacher.”

Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said it made sense that with schools mostly open this year, families who opted for private schools would come back and “save their money.”

“There are a lot of kids who have gone unnoticed,” Nozoe said. “If you’re going to move in again, you want to start this in ninth – not 10th, 11th or 12th.”

That’s what Virginia’s mother, Kate O’Harra, decided after removing her son Jack Mulhall from the Loudoun County District last year and enrolling him in Stride (formerly K12), a nationwide network of virtual schools, for the eighth grade.

“He wasn’t great,” although O’Harra, a Pilates instructor, and her husband, an IT professional, weren’t always available to help with homework. When the schools closed, Jack was about to overcome some of the scattering that comes with his ADHD. But the district’s distance learning program, which O’Harra described as “a complete and utter failure,” halted that progress.

“We were well placed before COVID. Now everything is on the map.

The affluent suburb has been the focus of several highly politicized controversies on the rights of transgender students and the use of so-called “critical race theory”. But Jack’s desire to return to school with his friends and his wish for a normal school structure convinced O’Harra to return to the district for ninth grade.

Still, the move didn’t solve everything for Jack, now at Woodgrove High School.

“We entered 9and grade very unprepared,” his mother said, adding that after a year of distance learning, he struggles with some social cues, like not knowing how to take a joke.


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Jack said his only contact with friends during eighth grade was playing “Call of Duty,” and the only person he met virtually through Stride was his math teacher. He still lacks some organizational skills and has fallen behind in Spanish and earth sciences. It will start next year with a tutor.

Jack Mulhall with his dog Peaches. Jack attended eighth grade with the online Stride program, but returned to a traditional high school for ninth grade in Loudoun County, Virginia last fall. (Kate O’Harra)

“I didn’t really have any homework for science [in eighth grade]. I was left adrift without any knowledge,” he said. But back at a mainstream school, Jack plays football and lacrosse and says, “I can actually see and talk to my teachers in real life.”


700 days since lockdown

At national scale registration in Stride has fallen slightly this year – to 187,000 from 189,400 last year, but still well above the pre-pandemic figure of around 123,000.

Virtual programs are another reason ninth-grade classes in some districts are swelling. Public Schools in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County, a rural district not far from the North Carolina state line, has offered a virtual option through Stride so parents still concerned about COVID don’t pull their children out of school. homeschooling and that the district does not lose funding.

The virtual program has increased ninth-grade enrollment from 337 in 2020-21 to 609 this year. But Superintendent Paul Nichols has regrets and has suggested distance education shares some of the blame for students who stray off course.

“We will not be offering any virtual education options to students next year,” he said. “We’re concerned that most of them haven’t completed much, if any, real academic work.”

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