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Initiatives for Ninth Grade Support: A Q&A With John Hayman, Principal at Tara High School

This interview is part of our District Dialogues series, in which we interview school and district leaders to learn more about the innovative strategies that are driving better student outcomes and experiences across the country.

In terms of student performance, Baton Rouge’s Tara High School had previously ranked 174 out of 177 public high schools in Louisiana six years in a row.  

But John Hayman, Tara’s principal, has been leading the effort to change that.  

Hayman, with support from the Center for High School Success, has created a series of strategic ninth grade success initiatives that focus on grading practices, staff teaming, and student relationship-building to drive better outcomes for this critical transition period. The Center for High School Success supports Hayman and other principals to set and execute on a vision for ninth grade success through coaching and leadership development support, using evidence-based resources like their Roadmap for 9th Grade Success

Today, Tara High School’s ninth grade class is ranked first in the nation for on-track improvement.

We sat down with Hayman to hear more about his ambitious vision for the school, the keys to its success, and the impact it’s having on students. 

 

 Tara High School Success: By the Numbers 

  • On-track improvement increased from 33% to 90% in two years.
  • Staff retention grew to over 95%.
  • Enrollment increased by more than 250 students. 
  • Improved state score to a “D” for first time in seven years. 

 

 

Tell us about your work. Why did you decide to focus on the ninth grade experience? 

We knew that the biggest return on our investment would come from freshmen, since they're going to help establish the culture for the next four years. Ninth grade is a good place to put our resources and concentrate on our vision for the school because those students set an example for the next class. This approach builds on itself year after year. 

What’s contributed to your initiative's success? 

Definitely the people. We’ve assembled a team that meets often and works totally in unison to look at data and put a blueprint in place. We don’t just pawn this off on our teachers. Our admin team is behind the effort 100%, and we all believe in what we’re doing. That’s the key to our success: We’re modeling for teachers the kind of relationship-building we want to see in classrooms.  

We build these relationships by continually meeting one-on-one with students who are at risk to make sure they’re being monitored throughout the whole process. We’re trying to hold students to a higher standard and make them understand that we're not going to give up on them. We want to see progress, so we’re going to keep meeting with them until they get where they need to be. The kids like it because they get to visit with principals, assistant principals, and academic coordinators—not because they’re in trouble, but just to talk. It's something we're trying to extend to every grade level to make it part of our schoolwide practice.  

What were some other core elements of the initiative? 

One was our grading policy, which wasn’t really standards-based but rather based on student behavior—almost a punitive thing. We had to do a better job disciplining students and ensuring they had positive supports in place.  

The ninth grade teachers led an effort to create a new grading policy that has spread across the campus, so now we offer many opportunities—including amnesty weeks—for students to turn in missing work. We have Saturday school where kids who are struggling can get extra assistance from our academic coordinators and teachers. We have transparent checklists for success that we share with students before assessments. 

Holding students accountable means ensuring they're engaged—that we’re challenging them and they’re giving us their best effort. So it's a mindset shift about what student success and accountability even is.

Students don't see any value in learning if we’re not providing them with individualized feedback, showing them where they can improve, and giving them kudos where they’re really good. 

What scheduling, staffing, or resource changes have you made to implement these strategies? 

We worked on our scheduling process eight months ahead of time, thinking about who needed to be a part of that team and how we were going to service students with specific needs. We prioritized departmental planning, ninth grade academy, and professional learning communities (PLCs) meetings, ensuring that every ninth grade teacher could meet during the school day. In biweekly academy meetings, teachers talk about specific students, data, and strategy progress. In the weekly PLC meetings, teachers focus on instructional best practices and student work. 

We also increased the number of higher-level or dual-enrollment classes we were offering. We conducted surveys, solicited course requests, looked at test score data, and placed students in cohorts based on their chosen career pathway, creating a master schedule that reflected our belief that all students are capable of completing advanced coursework. It allowed them more choice, and when they didn’t make the choice themselves, we used data to help them. 

What has this strategic initiative changed for the typical Tara High School ninth grade student?   

Students now have a purpose and feel like they’re part of a learning institution. Historically, ninth grade students performed worse than upper-class students, and a big part of that was the transition from middle to high school.

Students have to start to understand what high school is from day one. They have to feel like it’s for them and that the intent is to make them the best that they can be. So, now our counselors spend more time with ninth graders to teach them about graduation plans. 

In the past, we were falling short. Students are only going to be as motivated as we expect them to be, based on our actions. It requires constant tracking and recognition that everything has a purpose. We educated ourselves by asking questions like: What does this assessment determine? How does what teachers are doing in the classroom impact school performance? And what do we do when students aren’t successful? Once our leadership team and staff learned the “whys” behind components of our school performance, we were able to communicate that to the students. The students need to know what the “whys” are, too. 

What does a typical week look like for you as you lead this work? 

I schedule at least three teaching observations a week, and I spend most of my free time going into classrooms, interacting with students or talking to stakeholders about upcoming events. It’s important to be flexible. Priorities in urban schools shift like the weather, but being in the classroom consistently has to remain a priority.  

Everyone at Tara stands for lunch duty, since it’s the only time when kids can walk up and strike up a conversation. Being on duty during transition and lunch helps build relationships, and students get a chance to speak to their counselors and administrators without having to make an appointment.  

Two weeks per month, I prioritize one-on-one meetings with students we identify as high risk. It’s very structured: We ask the same questions and put responses in a spreadsheet so we can return to it. If you follow that template, you can’t help but learn about the child. 

What would you want other school leaders to know about implementing strategies to promote ninth grade success? 

You have to constantly monitor what students and teachers are doing and adjust continually. It should all revolve around student achievement data. I've learned that when you're creating a long-range plan, data meetings tell you everything you need to know about where you need to go.  

Modeling your expectations for everyone on your campus—whether it's your admin team or your teachers—is the most important part. You have to demonstrate what you want and lay out a blueprint for how to get there. And you have to be very specific about your goals. 

You also have to know the difference between how you manage the smaller classroom space and how you manage the big picture. How do you calculate your scores? How do you prioritize actions based on those scores? You can work harder than anyone else in the district, but you won’t get results if you put your work toward the wrong things. Focus on what matters, know why it matters, and then communicate that to your team.  

 

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