The transition from middle school to high school can be challenging for many students, but Caroline County Public Schools has taken innovative steps to make this transition smoother. Leveraging the Maryland Leads grant program and partnering with BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risk), they have created an innovative 9th Grade Academy at North Caroline High School. This transformative initiative aims to enhance the freshman experience and tackle learning loss, all while improving the quality of education by funding programs that reimagine the use of time.

Maryland Leads: Navigating Educational Challenges

The Maryland Leads grant initiative is designed to support local school systems (LSSs) in addressing the educational challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. It aims to accelerate student learning, narrow achievement gaps, and provide targeted support for historically underserved students.

The initiative centers around seven high-leverage strategies, Grow Your Own Staff, Staff Support and Retention, The Science of Reading, High-Quality, School Day Tutoring, Reimagining The Use of Time, Innovative School Models, and Transforming Neighborhoods Through Excellent Community Schools, offering flexibility for LSSs to tailor their approaches based on a student’s unique needs. The goal is to collaborate with best-in-class partners and implement programs effectively across these strategies.

The Reimagining The Use of Time strategy empowers LSSs to customize educational experiences for students by allocating time and creating space to build knowledge, foster motivation, and drive student outcomes. Embedded within the strategy are various focus areas and best practices drawn from the field that LSSs have the option to adopt and incorporate. These components may involve strategic student placements, social-emotional learning initiatives, professional development for educators, family and administrator engagement, as well as staff collaboration to address student needs. The aim is to strengthen support systems for students, ultimately bolstering their academic success and personal development.

By partnering with BARR, North Caroline High School has built a comprehensive program that focuses on every student in order to keep all students on track during their first year of high school. The BARR school model is a framework designed to elevate student achievement, with particular attention to the pivotal 9th grade transition. At its core, this model underscores the cultivation of robust relationships within the school community. It is widely acknowledged that when students experience a profound sense of belonging and support, they are more inclined to excel academically and personally.

“The positive difference I have seen is almost night and day. I feel like the kiddos have a stronger sense of ownership when it comes to their learning. I also feel like our staff teams have allowed us to discuss issues and plan effectively, not just as individual teachers, but as a cohesive team. I feel that the BARR model has truly made a difference with our Freshman.” — 9th Grade Teacher

9th grade students at North Caroline High School ready to begin the school year

Caroline County Public Schools: A Transformative 9th Grade Academy

The 9th Grade Academy, or “The Arena,” at North Caroline High School was born out of a commitment to improving the freshman experience. Recognizing the challenges students face during this critical transition year, the school system applied for and received the Maryland Leads grant, as well as partnered with BARR to make a real impact. Within its first year, North Caroline High School has seen significant gains among its 9th grade students. For example, during the 2022-2023 school year, 86% of 9th grade students were promoted to the 10th grade, as compared to 77% of students that were promoted the previous school year. More successes include a lower failure rate, less cellphone disruptions, and less major student referrals.

9th Grade Promotion Yearly Comparison*

School Year 2020-2021

9th Grade Promotion Rate

9th Grade Promotion Rate After Summer School

School Year 2021-2022

9th Grade Promotion Rate

9th Grade Promotion Rate After Summer School

School Year 2022-2023

9th Grade Promotion Rate

9th Grade Promotion Rate After Summer School

*Statistics provided by North Caroline High School

9th grade students are able to form better relationships with their peers

BARR Model: Building Assets, Reducing Risk

At the heart of this initiative is the BARR Model, which empowers school staff to better understand students’ strengths and challenges. Through proactively addressing non-academic factors that may hinder a student’s progress, the model identifies needed resources and steps for success. A noteworthy facet of the BARR model’s design pertains to its strategic focus on maintaining the academic trajectory of 9th grade students. By fostering interdisciplinary teacher collaboration and employing data-driven decision-making, educators can proactively identify students at risk of falling behind, facilitating timely and tailored interventions. Furthermore, the BARR model seamlessly integrates social and emotional learning into the curriculum, recognizing the profound impact of emotional well-being on academic achievement.

BARR employs eight interlocking strategies that focus on building intentional relationships, utilizing real-time data, and achieving concrete academic, social, and emotional outcomes for every student. 

Focus on the Whole Student
Provide Professional Development to Staff
Use I-Time Activities to Foster a Climate for Learning
Create Cohorts of Students
Hold Regular Meetings of Cohort Teacher Teams
Conduct Risk Review Meetings
Engage Families in Student Learning
Engage Administrators

The 9th Grade Academy in Action

The 9th Grade Academy at North Caroline High School was launched last year to support freshmen during their crucial transition year. The academy has a dedicated space upstairs, exclusively for 9th grade students. With a 9th grade administrator and counselor onsite, a multi-tiered system of support is readily available. Students participate in “I-Time” workshops where they discuss topics such as establishing rules for a respectful classroom community, commonalities amongst their peers, and ways to develop relationships beyond the surface level. On a weekly basis meetings are held between teachers and a BARR coach where students are discussed, data is analyzed, and next support steps are put into place. 

Since launching the academy, teachers and staff have noticed a difference in student academics and behavior:

“I encourage anyone who is skeptical of this model to come upstairs and see our students’ educational success, positive behaviors and the overall positive vibes that come from ‘The Arena.’ While it does take a lot of time and energy from all those involved, the results so far have been very positive for our students and that’s what it’s all about.”  — 9th Grade Teacher 

The 9th Grade Academy is located on the top floor of the school and is a space dedicated exclusively to 9th graders

Moving Forward: Building a Brighter Future

Caroline County Public Schools’ 9th Grade Academy exemplifies the spirit of the Maryland Leads grant program, addressing both immediate needs and long-term educational goals. By investing in the freshman experience, they are not only helping students navigate the critical transition to high school but also building a stronger foundation for their entire educational journey.

As the academy enters its second year, North Caroline High School looks forward to building on its successes and continuing to make a positive impact on students’ lives. This initiative serves as a shining example of how the Maryland State Department of Education empowers schools to overcome challenges and reimagine education for the benefit of all students.   

Learn more about Maryland Leads: