Ninth-graders have special needs

By From page A10 | March 31, 2013

I am an associate professor in psychology at UC Davis with expertise in cognitive and social development. I have been a member of the faculty at UCD since 2001. My three children attend Davis public schools. I spoke against the potential ninth-grade move to Davis High School at the recent school board meeting on behalf of the Holmes Junior High PTA.

Although I recognize that the 9-12 configuration is more common nationwide, numerous studies show that ninth grade is a particularly vulnerable year.

* The rapid rise in pubertal hormones during early adolescence is associated with increases in sensation-seeking and risk-taking. These hormonal changes occur when the frontal cortex of the brain — associated with planning, problem-solving and decision-making — is not fully mature (not until late adolescence).

* Conformity to peer pressure peaks in early adolescence (around ninth grade).

* Ninth grade is considered the most at-risk age for lowered school performance, behavioral problems and increased absences compared to all other school-aged groups.

* Frequent exposure to older adolescents increases risk-taking in younger adolescents, and this is especially true for early-maturing girls.

* Young adolescents do best when they are part of a school environment that promotes autonomy and leadership and where they receive personal support from teachers who know them and care about their progress.

* School motivation and academic performance decline when young adolescents have more distant and impersonal relationships with teachers and administrators.

The current configuration of having the ninth graders with the seventh- and eighth-graders in the Davis school district should not be treated as an anomaly that should be corrected but rather as a distinctive strength of our program. It provides a solid foundation for a successful transition to the senior high school.

This is particularly true for at-risk students who will be most affected by adding the ninth-graders to DHS. They especially need the support and guidance of teachers who know them well and advocate for their needs. The smaller school environments of our junior high schools are better equipped to prepare all students for the increased academic and social pressures of high school.

Kristin H. Lagattuta

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