Ninth Grade Academies (NGAs) — also called Freshman Academies — have attracted national attention as a particularly intensive and promising approach for supporting a successful transition for high school freshmen. An NGA is a self-contained learning community for ninth-graders that operates as a school within a school. NGAs have four core structural components: (1) a designated separate space within the high school, (2) a ninth-grade administrator who oversees the academy, (3) a faculty assigned to teach only ninth-grade students, and (4) teachers organized into interdisciplinary teams that have both students and a planning period in common. The theory of action behind NGAs is that when these components are employed together, they interact to create a more personalized learning environment where ninth-grade students feel less anonymous and more individually supported. This, in turn, should help students succeed in school and stay on track to high school graduation. NGAs have shown promising results when employed as part of a whole-school reform model, but in these cases schools have received external support from a developer to create and sustain them. A growing number of schools and districts have been experimenting with NGAs on their own, but the little research that exists on their effectiveness is limited to anecdotal accounts.
This study, which is based on a quasi-experimental research design, examines the effect of NGAs on students’ progress toward graduation, their academic achievement, and their behavior in several school districts in Florida. The sample for this study includes 27 high schools that created NGAs between 2001-2002 and 2006-2007, along with 16 comparison high schools that serve ninth-grade students with similar characteristics as students in the NGA schools. As context for understanding the impact findings, this study also looks at the extent to which the key features of the NGA model were implemented in the NGA schools in the study and how this differs from the structures and supports in the comparison schools.
The key finding is that the NGAs in this study do not appear to have improved students’ academic or behavioral outcomes (credit earning, state test scores, course marks, attendance, suspensions, or expulsions). The findings also suggest that it can be difficult for schools to fully implement the components of the NGA model without expert assistance: Three years after their creation, only half the NGAs in the study had all four structural components of the model in place. Nationally, school districts continue to create NGAs, and recent efforts to implement them have incorporated various enhancements that are intended to strengthen and improve their implementation, but little is known about their effectiveness. Because students’ experience in ninth grade is an important predictor of their future success, these efforts to create and improve NGAs should be examined in future studies.