Freshman academy gives 9th-graders a head start

Aberdeen High program focuses on skills, character

September 12, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

One of the most striking things about Aberdeen High School's new freshman academy is the atmosphere of quiet, an unusual state for a building housing ninth-graders.

Students file down the hall, and some are wearing uniforms - football jerseys, with dress shirts and ties.

Those proud members of the junior varsity football team are one clue to changing attitudes apparent among the new ninth-graders, said Principal David A. Volrath.

"Football players with ties on game day?" he said. Before this year, he said, the sight would have been unimaginable.

The freshman academy focuses on building skills and character. The 300 students are separated from upper grades to give them their own identity, Volrath said, and better prepare them for the personal and academic challenges of high school.

"Ninth grade is a particularly challenging age," said James McPartland, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. "Often, that's where students fall by the wayside. If you can help them have a successful transition to high school, you've gone a long way toward stopping the dropout problem."

Aberdeen's freshman academy stresses academic challenge and achievement, personal attention and structure. Interdisciplinary teachers are teamed so they can plan together and monitor student progress. Students needing extra help are identified quickly. A freshman seminar reinforces classroom studies and builds reading, writing, math and character skills.

"The goal is that every kid earns enough credits to pass," Volrath said.

The academy is housed this year in an unused wing of Aberdeen Middle School while a $37 million high school is built on the Aberdeen High grounds. After the move to the new school in two years, the ninth grade will have a two-story, semicontained space.

The 6-year-old academy concept is popular in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and schools are often finding great success, said McPartland, director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Hopkins, which is developing and evaluating the freshman academy model.

Patterson High in Baltimore has nearly doubled the rate of teen-agers promoted from ninth to 10th grade, to about 80 percent, he said.

Aberdeen is the first traditional high school in Harford County with a freshman academy, Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said.

"I think it's a wonderful idea, taking the young population and trying to get started in a way that is positive," Haas said. "It takes ... time to establish behaviors that are going to be useful to them."

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