TRINITY — Leaders at Mitchell High School knew they had to improve the ninth grade.
As a general rule, ninth-graders had the school's poorest attendance rate and highest level of discipline referrals. Only seven in 10 freshmen earned enough credits their first semester to be on track for an on-time graduation.
High school success needs to begin in the ninth grade, assistant principal Angie Murphy said.
Enter Mustang U.
After more than a year of planning, Mitchell introduced its ninth-grade academy last fall to combat the problems that made it difficult for some of its youngest students to make it across the stage four years later. Some key features include senior mentors, added guidance counseling, in-school study halls and tutoring, and community building activities such as freshman-only lunches and assemblies.
It's not all been wildly popular. Many of the teens complain, for instance, that they feel secluded from the rest of the student body.
But the effort has been working, if you go by the piles of data that the school has been collecting. Among the first semester highlights:
• 98 percent of ninth-graders had fewer than 10 days absent, the highest attendance rate of all grade levels.
• 85 percent of ninth-graders earned 3 credits (on pace for an on-time graduation), with another 9 percent earning 2.5 credits.
• 217 discipline incidents involved ninth- graders, a decrease of 37 percent from a year earlier.
• 43 percent of all ninth-graders enrolled in World History honors, with more ninth-graders in honors-level courses overall than in 2008-09.
The freshmen even came in second this year during homecoming competitions, something generally unheard of at Mitchell and most other high schools.
"It's just amazing how we've equipped them to be more prepared … rather than saying, 'Welcome to Mitchell. Good luck,' " said Jill Cortier, a science team leader who helped plan the program.
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11:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Hundreds of teens surged into the Mitchell High cafeteria, chattering about classes and gossip as they waited in line for salads with chicken breast or some sort of gravy-covered beef.
With the exception of some "Wranglers" — that's what they call 12th-grade mentors — everyone in here was a freshman. The once-a-week freshman-only lunch is a small piece of Mitchell's effort to ensure the transition from middle to high school, which scares more than a few kids, isn't too overwhelming.
"In some ways it's good," said Tyler Smith, "because we don't get messed with or picked on."
But, Tyler added, he and many others in the class have older friends and siblings. Pulling the freshman out, not just for a weekly lunch but also for many classes in a building separate from everyone else, "excludes us from the rest of the school," said Brooke Bobala.
That's perhaps the most common complaint the students have about the freshman academy.
"We're more distanced from everybody else," said Erin Satterwhite. "They treat us like babies."
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After lunch, the noisy throng of teens pressed into Building 800, giggling and joking as they filtered into classrooms for weekly character education lessons, or extra study time. One Wednesday each month, they have a whole-group session on some practical career or academic issue, such as a recent writing lesson from author Alane Ferguson.
"Our thought was to help them be successful in ninth grade so they could be successful throughout," said Michele Chamberlin, the school's career specialist, who helped organize the effort.
One of the big things the students have received during these weekly periods is attention. Teachers go over their work closely and even give them extra time to finish or redo assignments, although for partial credit.
"We're trying to get kids to understand what a zero on an academic grade means" without punishing them, Cortier said. After all, a zero added to a perfect assignment still averages at 50 — an F that's hard to bounce back from.
That's one part of Mustang U. the students do appreciate.
"It really does help me," said Rebecca King, who admitted to having some troubles in class. "They set aside time for you to come … and I need the extra help sometimes."
They also like the presence of selected seniors who assist teachers during these periods.
"They understand how we feel," said Jimmy Carson, who has two older sisters who have attended Mitchell. "They're just there to help us."
Seniors in the Wrangler program said the program seems to have positive benefits that they could have used.
"It would have helped me get better grades, learn study skills better," said Stacie Marlowe. "I think it will affect kids in a positive way."
At the same time, they could understand some of the ninth- graders' concern with being set aside from the rest of the school.
"When they are sophomores, it will be like they're freshmen again," said Ryan Herbolsheimer.
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Not exactly, assistant principal Murphy said.
The teens will have had a full year to assimilate into their 2,000-student high school guidance to smooth what some experts consider one of the roughest moves in schooling.
Instead of just pushing kids along, a team of educators aims to get at some of the core reasons why adolescents drop out — failing to do work, feeling lost in a sea of kids, lacking skills and direction. That way, they can see them through to a more independent sophomore year and beyond.
The effort begins with eighth- graders at neighboring Seven Springs Middle School. Mitchell has worked closely with Seven Springs to align curriculum, so the eighth-graders can get the courses they need to be prepared for high school.
The ninth-grade teaching team has met with these future students to let them see who their teachers will be, help them set class schedules and give them advice for how to prepare over the summer.
Even the parents of these students have been invited to a Parent University that covers topics such as dual enrollment, career academies, e-school and Advanced Placement, as well as testing, parenting and volunteering.
By the time the fourth quarter of freshman year arrives, the theory goes, they should be well prepared for what comes next.
"Our philosophy is that fourth quarter is really the start of 10th grade," Murphy said.
The extra time to turn in assignments gradually disappears, for example, as does the ability to redo them, because students have had the time to see what the consequences will be. The expectations increase.
The freshman academy is a lot of work for students and teachers alike, acknowledged Cortier, one of the program leaders. "But I've seen the results, so I don't mind putting in the extra effort."
The concept moves this fall to Wesley Chapel High, and Land O'Lakes High also plans to implement it. The principals at both of those schools helped create Mitchell's Mustang U before taking their current posts.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.