Photo from OSU Special Collections & Archives on Flickr.

DCPS will start separating first-time 9th-graders from students repeating 9th grade this fall, in all neighborhood high schools, and assigning some repeaters to “twilight academies.” High school students who are on track will clearly benefit, but it’s less clear what this will mean for those who are held back.

For many DCPS students, 9th grade is a make-or-break year. Until that point, under current DCPS policy, schools have promoted kids from grade to grade regardless of whether they’re performing on grade level. But in order to move on to 10th grade, they need to pass 9th-grade algebra and English. And around 40% of them don’t.

That means that 9th-grade classes are swollen with a mixture of entering 9th-graders and older students who are on the second or third time around. But, as Emma Brown reported in the Post, all that is about to change.

For the past two years, Dunbar High School has funneled its repeating 9th-graders into a so-called “twilight academy,” which meets for 4 hours after the regular school day is over. First-time 9th-graders attend a “9th grade academy,” which requires a longer school day and provides support services to struggling students. It’s an approach that has been tried elsewhere around the country.

One result at Dunbar has been a significant uptick in 9th-grade promotion rates: from 47% in 2011 to 71% in 2012, and possibly as much as 90% this year. Encouraged by this success, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has decided to expand the Dunbar experiment to the other 8 non-selective DCPS high schools.

Is this a good idea?

It clearly makes sense to separate repeaters from first-time 9th-graders. Repeaters are not only older and more jaded than relatively fresh-faced first-timers, they’re more likely to disrupt classes and divert teachers’ energies away from education and into behavior management. And nationally, 9th-grade academies have shown some success, although a recent report uncovers some difficulties in implementation.

But does putting repeaters into twilight academies actually help them catch up? Dunbar was unable to provide any data on that question. If the students are just getting the same instruction that hasn’t worked for them before, there’s no particular reason to think it will work better just because they’ve been isolated.

Of course, if separating the two groups of students produces positive results only for first-timers and doesn’t leave repeaters in a worse position, it’s still worth doing. Kids in DCPS high schools who are eager to learn shouldn’t be prevented from doing so by their disaffected classmates.

But ideally, the repeaters should benefit too. According to Brown’s article, not all repeating 9th-graders will go to Dunbar-like twilight academies. Some may end up at evening credit-recovery programs or alternative schools that are better equipped to deal with their problems. But wherever they end up should be more than just a warehouse for troublemakers.

According to the Dunbar website, classes in the twilight academy are smaller. That’s good, but it might take more than just smaller classes. Teachers need to be equipped to deal with students who have behavioral problems and learning disabilities. And repeaters, especially those who have only failed a class once, should have a sense that re-entry into the mainstream is possible.

What do you call the repeaters and the non-repeaters?

When I was at Dunbar a few months ago for a program that highlighted the 9th-grade academy’s college readiness curriculum, I heard some terminology that made me wince: the principal, Stephen Jackson, referred to the first-time 9th grade as the “pure” 9th grade.

I know what he meant, but the implication was that the repeaters were “impure” and needed to be isolated from other students lest they infect them. Speaking to the Post, Jackson apparently used the word “true” rather than “pure” to describe first-time 9th-graders, but even that term suggests that the repeaters are somehow “false.”

For that matter, I have problems with the term “twilight academy,” which makes it sound like the repeaters have entered a Twilight Zone from which they may never return. Or perhaps an inevitable decline, as in “Twilight of the Gods.” Or have transformed into vampires.

I’m not advocating more of the Newspeak that is seeping into the education world (for example, I’ve heard detention rooms, where disruptive students have no choice but to go, referred to as “choice rooms”). But language can both reflect and shape people’s assumptions, and compared to actually turning around failing high school students, it’s a relatively simple matter to come up with some neutral terminology.

So I would hope that teachers and administrators will stick with “9th-grade academy” instead of “pure” or “true” 9th grade. As for “twilight academy,” I’m no marketing or branding expert, but how about something like “support academy”? Or, if you want something catchier, “Ladder to Success”? Other suggestions, anyone?

The good news is that if other DCPS high schools replicate Dunbar’s experience, there may be fewer 9th graders headed for special environments for repeaters, whatever they’re called. And of course, the better long-range solution is to ensure that students get the help they need to stay on grade-level before they reach 9th grade. That would mean ending the policy of social promotion in elementary and middle school, as Councilmember David Catania has proposed, and/or providing meaningful early interventions for struggling students.

In the meantime, giving students true remedial support in high school, whether in a 9th-grade academy or some other setting, is bound to produce better results than what we’ve been doing.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.