As people learn that Greensboro Montessori School will offer ninth grade beginning in 2017, they ask, “Why are you offering ninth grade? Aren’t your students ready for high school?”
The fact is, our graduates are more than ready for high school. Our middle school program is highly effective at preparing students for a lifetime of achievement, and the qualities of our program look exactly like the middle school described by Dr. William M. Alexander (1912–1996). Alexander, who is widely recognized as the “father” of the American middle school movement, said good middle-level schools (called junior high schools at the time) offered “more of the freedom of movement they need, more appropriate health and physical education, more chances to participate in planning and managing their own activities, more resources for help on their problems of growing up, and more opportunities to explore new interests and to develop new aspirations.”1
Therefore, the question should not be whether Greensboro Montessori School’s middle school is effective. Instead, it should be, “How effective is ninth grade in high school?” Data and educational trends indicate that today’s high school fails to meet the developmental needs of the ninth-grade student.
“Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year in High School” was published on November 1, 2013 on The Atlantic’s website. It’s premise flows from recent research that finds “ninth graders have the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high-school grade level.” The article’s author, Michele Willens, writes, “Not only are youths entering the intimidating institution that is high school, they are experiencing the usual adolescent angst and depending on poor decision-making skills. ‘Students entering high school—just at the time brains are in flux—still have the propensity to be impulsive and are prone to making mistakes,’ says Washington D.C. psychoanalyst Dr. Linda Stern. ‘They are therefore experimental and trying to separate…Put all that together with raging hormones, the normal academic pressures, and meeting a whole new group to be judged by.’”
A blog from Public School Review further explores how the traditional ninth-grade setting impacts adolescents and how “many schools are restructuring their programs so that ninth graders are in a separate setting, apart from the larger high school community.” This trend has taken hold to serve ninth graders’ “distinct needs,” and researchers at Boston College have already determined the effectiveness of the model. “Results from the study show that, overall, the isolation of ninth graders in ‘a separate building, wing or floor eases the transition to high school.’ Paired with this, ‘Ninth grade students benefit by building relationships with peers in the same grade,’ as students, teachers, and [administrators] reported fewer concerns of bullying by older students.”
As Montessorians, when we combine this research with our own knowledge of Dr. Maria Montessori’s four phases of development, we proclaim with certainty that offering ninth grade is the right thing to do for students and their families.
During her groundbreaking studies, Dr. Montessori defined four phases of development in a child’s journey to adulthood: the absorbent mind from zero to six; childhood from six to 12; adolescence from 12 to 18; and the young adult from 18 to 24. Within each phase, Dr. Montessori uncovered two distinct, three-year learning cycles (or subphases) based on sensitive periods of growth and development shared among the age group. The three-year cycle results in multiage classrooms where skills and concepts are introduced, explored and mastered through consecutive years of learning. The three-year cycle also reinforces student leadership through social development.
The adolescent phase of development is unique. Dr. Montessori said, “The third period goes from 12 to 18, and it is a period of so much change as to remind one of the first [period from ages zero to six]. It can again be divided into two subphases: one from 12 to 15, and the other from 15 to 18. There are physical changes also during this period, the body reaching its full maturity."2
The first adolescent subphase from 12 to 15 equates to seventh, eighth and ninth grades. Dr. Montessori would advocate that ninth graders – based on their collective social, emotional, mental and physical development – should be leaders in a multiage grouping with seventh and eighth graders. She would further argue their minds and bodies are better served when positioned as mentors.
Graduates of Greensboro Montessori School thrive in four-year high schools. We count multiple valedictorians, salutatorians and Morehead Scholars among our alumni, and we know some students will continue to graduate in eighth grade and matriculate beautifully into private and public high schools. But Dr. Montessori’s developmental phases and today’s educational research also tell us high school isn’t meeting the needs of ninth graders. As a member of the Greensboro community, leaders in the field of education, and stewards of our students’ education, we have an obligation to offer ninth grade. Not because we think students will have a poor experience elsewhere, but because they will be better served by the ninth-grade experience at Greensboro Montessori School.
1Alexander, William M. “The Junior High School: A Changing View.” Tenth Annual Conference for School Administrators: A National Conference on the Junior High School, July, 1963. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Keynote Address.
2Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. 1949.