Freshmen in middle schools? North Penn High School’s rare grade configuration

The bell rings. Throughout North Penn High School, thousands of students file out of classrooms and through the halls.

But compared to most high schools around America, there is one conspicuous absence: freshmen.

So, where are they?

The vast majority are waking up an hour later and heading to one of three middle schools. The few advanced students who start their days taking classes at the high school take a bus back to the middle schools for the afternoon.

In the North Penn School District, students who are adding grades to their high school transcripts and worrying about college applications are sharing hallways with kids fresh out of elementary school.

“I feel like us ninth graders aren’t taken seriously,” said Aethan Huong, a freshman at Pennbrook Middle School. “We are grouped as middle schoolers with seventh graders, and we are frequently treated like those seventh graders.”

At Pennbrook Middle School , which is part of the North Penn School District, high school freshmen share the building with seventh and eighth graders. ERIC WANG, First Take Staff

Proposals for change have gained more support among administrators and community members in recent years, since the introduction of full-day kindergarten.

The district would create space in elementary schools by moving the sixth graders to middle schools. The freshmen would move into a new building on the high school campus.

Of the 90 freshmen that First Take polled at Pennbrook Middle School, 78 percent supported changing the grade structure.

According to Superintendent Curt Dietrich, 75 percent of high schools in Pennsylvania are grades 9-12, putting North Penn in the minority.

Since the district’s inception in the 1960s, North Penn High School has been too small to accommodate four grades. From 1994 to 1996, freshmen took classes in a separate building. Then the district converted that building to another middle school and the system took on its current form.

“The high school can comfortably handle 3,300 students,” Dietrich said, “but it cannot accommodate the 1,000 additional freshmen.”

North Penn’s unconventional grade configuration has both positives and negatives.

“There’s a big difference in maturity between seventh and ninth graders,” said Amber Kitchenman, assistant principal of Pennbrook Middle School. “For those seventh graders, seeing more experienced role models in the freshmen that they share the halls with pushes them to become more serious and diligent.”

However, this also causes problems. The high school building offers activities and advanced classes not available in middle schools. Most freshmen are unable to take advantage of these opportunities.

That’s why Edward Kong, a freshman at Pennbrook Middle School, supports the construction of a freshman center.

“Currently, the high school has hundreds of clubs and extracurricular activities, which can expose students to leadership and volunteering opportunities,” he said.

Assistant Principal Kitchenman said logistical issues “definitely dissuade a lot of kids” from pursuing these activities and advanced classes. Only about 30 freshmen take classes at the high school this year, she said.

Kitchenman said ninth graders, who sometimes act inappropriately, also would benefit from higher expectations in a high school environment.

“They would certainly be more willing to rise to the occasion and elevate their level of conduct,” she said.

Freshmen in the district’s middle schools agree.

“There is a vast contrast between the high school and middle school environment,” said Pennbrook freshman Kenny Lu. “Ninth graders are much more developed than seventh and eighth graders and they do not belong on the same campus.”

Dietrich, North Penn’s superintendent, said he supports building space for freshmen on the high school campus.

The proposal is still in early stages and might take a decade or more to complete, Pennbrook’s vice principal said.

“We still need to hear a lot of different opinions on this subject, decide what form it will take, allocate funding,” Kitchenman said. “But I think that this would be a great thing for a lot of students.”

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