A group of teachers, some of them doing graduate work, told the Park Rapids School Board on Tuesday, April 6 about their action research project, “Panthers First,” aimed at reducing failure rates among high school freshmen.

Establishing the need

Teacher Brent Vandal showed the school board a chart of the average number of failing students during the first trimester from 2018 to 2020, broken down by grade level. Ninth graders had the most failing grades, while failure rates dropped with each succeeding class.

This bar graph compares the average first trimester failure rates for all four high school classes during each of the last three school years. (Courtesy of Park Rapids Area Schools)
This bar graph compares the average first trimester failure rates for all four high school classes during each of the last three school years. (Courtesy of Park Rapids Area Schools)

While he admitted that all the reasons for this trend are unknown, Vandal said this data suggests the transition from middle school to high school needs attention.

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“I think we all can think back to when we were first going into high school: the mental stress, the anxieties, the unknowns, the learning curve it takes to be successful in high school amongst all those changes,” he said.

Vandal said a contributing issue may be the difference between how middle school and high school operate. “If we could bring freshman failure rates down, hopefully this trend will continue throughout their entire high school.”

This graph compares each of this year's current high school classes from one trimester to the next since the fall of 2018. The Class of 2021 is shown in blue, 2022 in red, and 2023 in yellow. This year's freshman class (Class of 2024, green) is represented only by a dot in the column for the first trimester of 2020-21. (Courtesy of Park Rapids Area Schools)
This graph compares each of this year's current high school classes from one trimester to the next since the fall of 2018. The Class of 2021 is shown in blue, 2022 in red, and 2023 in yellow. This year's freshman class (Class of 2024, green) is represented only by a dot in the column for the first trimester of 2020-21. (Courtesy of Park Rapids Area Schools)

He said COVID-19 may be another issue, also showing a graph that broke down each current high school class’s percentage of failing students each trimester since fall 2018. Again, the data indicates that freshmen were more adversely affected than upperclassmen.

After schools closed last spring due to the pandemic, Vandal noted, the returning sophomore and senior classes saw a slight spike in failure rates; juniors’ failure rate actually went down. Meanwhile, the new freshman class showed a failure rate approaching 40 percent – a level the school hasn’t seen before.

“What we started looking at is, what did those kids really miss?” he said, noting that COVID-19 alone doesn’t explain that high failure rate. “They were stuck home at the end of eighth grade. They didn’t get any welcome to the high school, roll-out-the-red-carpet stuff we do in the spring.”

Specifically, they didn’t receive registration support, visit the high school during the spring to meet teachers and tour the school, or have a freshmen-only first day of school, said Vandal. “That, I think, is the biggest difference.”

He advocated bringing back those supports on an ongoing basis.

Parts of the program

“Connection is key,” said teacher Stephen Funk. “For these kids to be successful in high school, they have to have a trusted connection over at this new building.”

He noted the stress of leaving the comfortable routines and relationships of middle school and starting over. “If we can start them on the trend of being successful and passing some classes,” he said, “that carries all the way through.”

Meanwhile, he said, failing classes in ninth grade correlates with a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. To combat this, Funk described three components for the Panthers First program.

First, he said, is the spring meet and greet, planned for May 7 this year. It will include breakfast and lunch, homeroom visits, a chance to tour the school and meet teachers, fun activities in each department and a scavenger hunt to add a touch of competition.

Second, fall orientation will involve team-building activities, opportunities to learn about the school and go over class schedules, and a social-emotional wellness component.

Third, Funk described a peer mentoring program in which two upperclassmen, selected to represent a cross-section of the school, will partner to work with 10-12 freshmen.

He said this will benefit the older kids by building confidence and leadership skills, while giving freshmen guidance, a sense of belonging and periodic check-ins throughout the school year.

“Our goal is to try and really improve the entire culture of the whole school,” said Funk. “Everybody is looking out for everybody else.”

Funk stressed there is “hard evidence” from schools nationwide, suggesting that a program like Panthers First helps build students’ motivation, classroom engagement and attendance.

“It doesn’t matter their race,” he said. “It doesn’t matter their socio-economic status. It’s beneficial to every single kid in our district.”

School board members urged the teachers to return in the fall to report the results of the program.

Former principal and school board member Gary Gauldin commented that in his experience, student failure rates correlated to three things: canceling the driver’s ed program, the achievement gap for Native American students and the shock of moving from middle school – where teachers take a lot of responsibility for students – to high school, where they’re on their own.

“We’ve got to do something about school readiness from middle school to ninth grade,” he said.