4 School Houses? It’s Not Hogwarts, It’s Danville, Kentucky

For Danville High School in Danville, Illinois, the founding of the Freshman House program might have been a small step, but it was a step in the right direction for a school that had failed to meet the adequate yearly progress five consecutive years and was facing the risk of closure. This threat forced the school administration to study the unique needs of a student body that was made up mostly of low-income students and had mobility rates that were double the state average. The Freshman House concept, which groups students in one of four ‘Houses’ based on learning interests and breaks the large school into smaller communities, was born through analysis and soul searching.

The goal of the Freshman House is to ease the transition for students first entering high school and help them adjust to the environment that often involves more students and stricter standards. Often, students come to Danville from smaller, much less structured academic environments, and giving them a place to seek support and help often means the difference between dropping out and staying on to graduate.

The Freshman House, as well as the three other houses that cater to older students – New Tech High, GLOBAL House and ACE house – was a way for Danville to make a large school serving over 1,600 students to create a feeling of a much smaller community.

In addition to phasing in the small learning communities, other major components included adding and rearranging staff to make the most of their skills and interests, providing more time for meaningful professional development, adding an extra hour of instruction for freshmen, expanding high school alternative programs and using data to drive instruction. Officials launched Freshman House in the 2008-09 school year, following the success of a similar program piloted for 100 ninth-graders the year before. The first Freshman House class graduated in May.

Even with all the changes, Danville is still classified as underperforming by the state — but it appears to be improving. From the time that Freshman House program first launched to now, the school’s attendance rate went up by more than 2%, from just above 89% to 91.7%, the graduation rate for seniors improved to over 6% to 81.7% and the percentage of kids dropping out before graduation dropped from 8.7%, nearly twice the state average, to 6.3%.

And in 2012, 34.6 percent of juniors who took the Prairie State Achievement Exam met or exceeded state reading standards, up from 32.3 percent in 2011. And 35.2 percent of juniors met or exceeded math standards, up from 31.2 percent the previous year.

Freshman House works by separating incoming freshmen into four groups of roughly 100 students each. Each group has its own set of teachers and their classes all take place on the same floor rather than in classrooms spread around the building, fostering the feeling of community. This also allows teachers to keep a closer eye on which students are struggling with the transition so they can step in to offer help before the student falls far enough behind to consider dropping out.

Officials supplemented the new structure by adding a seventh period to the ninth-grade schedule. The school had offered the “early bird” period to all students — and still does — but it had not been mandatory for freshmen until restructuring began. That gives freshmen another hour of instruction, which they can use to take an extra math or English class if they need help in those subjects, or an elective. It also gives them a chance to earn 12 or 14 credits. They need 10 to earn sophomore status.