Fernando Rodriguez, 17, is a senior at George Washington High School in Chicago.
Fernando Rodriguez, 17, is a senior at George Washington High School in Chicago. - 

The school year is just a few weeks old, and ninth graders at George Washington High on Chicago’s southeast side are still trying to get the hang of things. They’re at a much bigger school with hundreds more kids and a more complicated class schedule.

To help ease the transition, the school has grouped most of the freshman classes along one hallway.

“It keeps things easier, so freshmen aren't going all over the place,” said history teacher George Fotopoulos. “High school can be pretty overwhelming as it is.”

And ninth grade isn’t just any grade.

“Freshman year’s where you start,” said Fernando Rodriguez, who’s a senior now. “If you start strong, chances are you’re going to end strong.”

He’s got that right.

Years ago, researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that how students perform during their freshman year is the best predictor of whether they’ll graduate — better than their previous grades or attendance or their family’s income.

The first year sets the tone for the rest of high school, said Sarah Duncan, who co-directs the university’s Network for College Success. She cited the example of a student who gets off to a rough start and fails a class or two in ninth grade.

“We've experienced many teachers who thought that giving a freshman who’s 14 years old an F would make them work harder,” said Duncan. But, she said, “Most kids interpret an F as ‘I don't belong here, I am not going to succeed here.’ They come to school less, they do less and less work, and then they're in this downward spiral of falling further and further behind.”

To prevent that, Chicago Public Schools started arming teachers with a steady stream of data on grades, course credits and attendance. If the data reveal a student is struggling in a certain area, a faculty member can step in right away.

At Washington High, students at risk are also assigned mentors.

When Kathleen Valente became an assistant principal at the school three years ago, “we had security guards being mentors, coaches being mentors,” she said, adding that it paid off. “We saw increases for those students, just that little touch."

Back then, just 65 percent of students graduated in four years.

Last year about 83 percent graduated on time, according to principal Kevin Gallick. And about 88 percent of last year's freshmen were considered on-track to graduate, he said, meaning they'd earned at least five full-year course credits and failed no more than one core class. 

Based on that trend, “it’s pretty reasonable to have a 90 percent graduation rate, if we can get things right with today’s freshman class,” he said.

Big gains in graduation rates, like the ones at Washington High, have raised some eyebrows in Chicago, which is one of the largest urban school systems in the country, with a majority of students living in poverty. Chicago’s accountability system rates schools on the number of freshmen considered on-track to graduate, and skeptics worry that some schools are goosing their numbers by passing students who aren’t prepared.

But Gallick says his students’ ACT scores have gone up four years in a row. Scores are also up across the district, said the University of Chicago’s Sarah Duncan.

“If we were just passing kids through and not really teaching them,” she said, “then ACT scores should have gone down.”

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports