October 6, 2008

One-Third of 9th-Graders ‘D’ Students or Worse


One-third of all ninth-graders in Anne Arundel County's public schools had a grade point average below 2.0 at the end of last year.

And 47.9 percent of African-American boys and 55.9 percent of students in poverty had a D or lower, which is less than a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.

The low grades have raised alarms.

"This is a crisis," said Eric Sullivan, chairman of the countywide Citizen Advisory Committee, the parent group that advises the Board of Education. "I think we're not unique (among school districts), but we need to take a look at ourselves and say, 'What can we do better?' "

School officials promise to reduce the percentage of ninth- graders with less than a 2.0 to 15 percent by 2012. But some people who have been watching students' grades for years say past efforts to raise freshman grades haven't made an impact.

But county educators hope new efforts and a push to involve the community will finally make a difference.

Low grades

The school system generates a report once each semester showing the percentage of ninth-graders with less than a 2.0 GPA. The report from the end of the last school year shows that countywide, 33.2 percent, or 6,099 freshmen, had less than a 2.0. It also shows stark differences between high schools: At Glen Burnie, the percentage of ninth-graders with a GPA under 2.0 was 51.3 percent, while at Severna Park it was 10.7 percent.

Those students aren't allowed to participate in after-school activities, including sports. They're also more likely to drop out of high school, said George Arlotto, chief school performance officer for the school system.

And beginning high school with grades that low puts them on a tough path to higher education. From that level, it's hard to pull up their grades to levels accepted by four-year colleges, said Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland-College Park. And if they can't do it, admissions officers will doubt they can handle a college workload.

"It's unusual for a student who has made a deficient start to turn around and become a really good student," Ms. Gundy said, adding that most freshmen at her university earned a high B average, or about a 3.5 GPA, in high school.

Still, Marti Pogonowski, director of continuous school improvement for county schools and a former ninth-grade teacher, said she has seen freshmen grow out of their difficult middle school years and learn to focus on their schoolwork.

"It's hard to get up to a 4.0, but if they get the idea they can dig themselves out to a respectable GPA," she said.


Tom Frank, education chairman of the Greater Crofton Council, said the percentage of students with less than a 2.0 GPA hasn't changed much in the past 10 years, which is how long he has been tracking the reports.

"It doesn't matter who was on the school board, who was the superintendent. It's always been about a third," he said.

Under a strategic plan approved by the Board of Education last year, schools are supposed to drive that number down to 15 percent by 2012.

But the progress they're making doesn't seem fast enough to hit the mark: A high school task force in 2007 reported 36 percent of freshmen countywide had below a 2.0, and it only fell to 33.2 percent by the end of last year.

Still, Dr. Arlotto said he's confident the schools will hit 15 percent. Initiatives are under way to help ninth-graders, including programs to build relationships between students and teachers and courses that target student interests, like the arts and homeland security. And a new middle school schedule the superintendent plans to start using next year would better prepare eighth-graders to do well in high school.

No one program will improve students' grades, Dr. Arlotto said - that's why schools are using a variety of approaches.

"There's no light switch you can turn on to raise GPA," he said.

Carlesa Finney, director of equity assurance for county schools, said the school system is particularly trying to raise the grades of African-American boys. Countywide, 47.9 percent of African-American boys had a D average or below in last year's report; at Glen Burnie High School it was 70.5 percent and at North County High School it was 65.8 percent.

Boys in general develop later, which is why many parents hold their boys back a year before starting kindergarten, Ms. Finney said. And more African-American boys are being raised by single mothers, meaning they often don't have male role models who encourage them to do well in school, she said.

"They have a deficit in family and role-model support," Ms. Finney said.

Tutors and mentors can give African-American boys the adult support they're not getting at home, which is why the school system is trying to gather more volunteers from the community.

Mr. Sullivan also said solutions to raising achievement have to come from the community. The countywide CAC plans to take a close look at the 2.0 report at its next meeting.

"Everyone needs to be involved here," he said. "These are not solutions that can occur only (at the school system's central office) on Riva Road."

The countywide Citizen Advisory Committee will discuss the 2.0 GPA report at its next meeting, at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at 2644 Riva Road in Parole. {Corrections:} {Status:}


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