Backed by a $1 million grant from Johns Hopkins University, about two dozen middle and high schools in Seattle are trying to reinvent how they prepare eighth-grade students and their families for the freshman year.

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It’s no secret that the freshmen year can be a make-or-break moment in high school.

Fresh out of middle school, where grades don’t matter much, ninth-graders have to balance an increase in freedom and responsibility with new social pressures in a larger student body. That can make it easier to get lost in the crowd, and ninth-graders rack up the most absences and course failures than their older classmates.

To break what educators have long called “the ninth-grade bottleneck,” about two dozen middle and high schools in Seattle have tapped an approximately $1 million grant from Johns Hopkins University to reinvent how they work with each other and with families to ensure students don’t fall behind early.

“We know that at that crucial point in the ninth grade, just when students need the most help, schools aren’t reaching out (to families) as much,” said Martha Mac Iver, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Traditionally, high schools in Seattle hold a one-time curriculum night or open house at the start of fall semester, welcoming parents who have the free time to meet teachers.

But with the Johns Hopkins grant, 23 schools in Seattle have spent the past three years brainstorming new ideas on how to teach families exactly what’s expected out of their incoming freshmen and what support they may need to stay on track to graduate.

“We do all right preparing students for high school, but not so much with the parents, especially if they speak a different language,” said Adie Simmons, who coaches the 23 teams for Seattle Public Schools.

As part of the grant, high schools started sending staff to middle schools during information nights to help eighth-grade students and their families know what to expect in the freshmen year. Some middle schools stopped a common practice of having eighth-graders sign up for their high school classes without parent input. Others hosted more celebratory events for their students, with food as an incentive for families to join.

In high school, teachers and staff offer opportunities for families to connect with the school throughout the year. They also used new smartphone apps or text-messaging services to update parents on important school information.

School staff also spend time reflecting on how each idea worked, and how to improve it in the future to reach more families.

“One of the best questions (staff) can ask themselves is, ‘Who wasn’t there?’” Simmons said.

Ultimately, the goal of the grant is to increase family engagement in the 23 schools and see if that helps reduce absenteeism and course failure in the ninth grade. Mac Iver said it’s too early to see that connection in the data, but she and Simmons have identified some challenges in some schools.

“The schools are at different stages of this, but many of them are just stressed for time,” Mac Iver said, adding she hoped the schools commit to family engagement even after the grant expires next year. “It’s very important and worth doing.”