Redesigning the Ninth-Grade Experience: The Middle School to High School Transition

Guest post by Lesley Corner

The transition from middle school to high school is a momentous occasion in a student’s life. Research shows the single most predictive indicator of high school performance is a student’s academic standing during the ninth grade, so it is my professional goal to help each student be successful from the start.

Like most high schools, our data showed a need for intensive ninth-grade support. In conjunction with a team of teacher leaders and community members, I redesigned our ninth-grade experience. After we developed a vision statement, mission statement, and motto reflecting our overall beliefs, we developed a three-tier Freshmen Transition Program.

Tier 1: All Freshmen

Tier 1 includes the experience of all ninth graders. This experience begins for our rising ninth graders in the spring of their eighth-grade year. Our principal, ninth-grade school counselors, JROTC instructors, band director, and I meet with all rising ninth graders at our feeder middle school to talk about moving on to Camden High School (CHS). We follow up with our April Parent University on the ABC’s of ninth grade. These workshops lead into the full-day freshmen orientation provided by our student council on their first day of high school.

high school transitionAdditionally, we developed a Leadership CHS course required for all incoming freshmen. This course includes four domains: Being a Bulldog: Introduction to the Bulldog Family; Strategies for Success: Academic and Social; Career and College Exploration: Incorporating School Counselors; and Leadership: Laws and Qualities. Leadership CHS prepares freshmen to become successful students and productive citizens. Students embark upon a comprehensive study of the academic, life, and leadership skills necessary both in and out of the classroom. In addition, students explore career and college options. Through book studies, service learning projects, and guest speakers, this course lays the foundation for success over the next four years and beyond.

Tier 2: Rising Freshmen Not Meeting Standards

Tier 2 includes students who did not meet standards in eighth-grade reading and/or math courses or who did not meet standards on eighth-grade standardized testing. In addition to our Tier 1 experience, these students are enrolled in a secondary literacy and/or algebra 1 mastery class in the fall of their ninth-grade year. These courses explicitly teach reading, writing, numeracy, and study strategies using Mathematics Design Collaborative (MDC) and Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC), so our students can meet and exceed grade-level standards.

Tier 3: Freshmen Not Meeting Standards

Tier 3 includes our most extensive interventions. For approximately 50 selected students, we developed a learning community led by a strong team of enthusiastic, expert teachers to provide data-driven, student-centered instruction. We meet the academic needs of Tier 3 students by offering additional academic support using research-based practices including flexible grouping, community mentoring, individualized instruction, and interdisciplinary curriculum. Using the concepts of High Schools That Work and other extensive educational research, we give all students clearly defined standards for quality work, adequate support to achieve these standards, and an understanding of the relevance of curricular content and skills for their future. A key feature of Tier 3 is the offering of “Lunch and Learn” to those students who are in need of additional academic support during the school day.


This three-tier Freshmen Transition Program resulted in a 41 percent drop in ninth-grade retention, a 64 percent drop in ninth-grade discipline, and the highest standardized scores in the history of our school, with all subgroups showing significant gains. Furthermore, our freshmen became proud, productive members of our Camden Bulldog Family quickly because they were acclimated to our “Commitment to Excellence” before and throughout their ninth-grade year.

Improving the ninth-grade experience leads to higher graduation rates and improved readiness for college and careers. What are some other benefits of providing a smooth transition from eighth grade to ninth grade? Do you know any other methods of creating a more effective ninth-grade experience?

Lesley Corner is an assistant principal at Camden High School in Camden, SC. She is the 2016 South Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year and an NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year finalist. Follow her on Twitter @lesley_corner.


  • Mike Duffy says:

    An important idea often overlooked with all the other business going on in high school. Years ago, when we tried a ninth grade project, we were able to move a few 8th grade teachers along with the kids to become the 9th grade specialists. It worked so well because current HS teachers didn’t “have to teach ‘them’.”

  • Clayton Tomjack says:

    Our high school has an intervention program somewhat similar to yours that will be in its second year this year. However, I have found that there is another group of freshmen that we have not addressed – the high-ability learners. I have an incoming freshman who will have completed 60 high school credits when he arrives. He is scheduled to take Honors Chemistry and Pre-Calc as a freshman, and we look to run out of challenging curriculum options for him by his junior year. We are a small district and only have one or two students of this caliber per class, so we don’t have the density to offer a lot of AP or college-level options.

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