“It’s Iron Sharpening. It’s Capacity Building”

Reflections from the conclusion of the 2022–23 National Freshman Success Institute

Throughout the National Freshman Success Institute (NFSI), the UChicago Network for College Success (NCS) works with administrators, teachers, counselors, and other school staff to build knowledge and skills and shift perspectives that will lead to greater student success, particularly for 9th-graders.
Last month, over 100 participants completed the Institute, culminating in a final in-person convening at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. The group had previously gathered in July and October of last year. During their February session, the group reflected on notable school year successes so far and opportunities for continuous improvement in their everyday practice.
(NFSI participants work in their respective school teams at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice)

  • “This experience has been very impactful. Sitting here and having these conversations with school teams from across the country… it’s given me a different way of seeing the work. It’s reminded me of things I’ve seen and things I haven’t yet put into practice that I need to put into practice. In a few words–it’s iron sharpening. It’s capacity building. NFSI has given me tools and language that I didn’t have to allow me to see things differently.” said Brandon Towns, Assistant Principal at Cleveland Height-University Heights City School District.
In tandem with engaging in community-based and self-guided learning opportunities, NFSI participants are supported by NCS coaches to assess their current systems and processes and build action plans that articulate their aims for their 9th-grade students.
Furthermore, participants in the Institute receive more than just research. Through each session and activity, they actively participate in the honest exchange of ideas and strategies for improvement with their colleagues and across school and district lines. This emphasis on collaboration across contexts results in the best learning experience for educators who may be new to Freshman Success work and those with experience.
  • “I took away this idea that I’m not going through the experiences I have as a teacher, as a part of a school community, alone. Some of the things that I struggle with, other professionals struggle with, no matter the level they’re at–whether being administrative, teaching or support staff,” said Francis Roberson, Social Studies Teacher/Team Lead at Mitchell High School. “This experience just gave me tools to work with in my school–tools I know I won’t exhaust any time soon.”
(Mark Clayton II and Eddie Taylor, Jr., educators from Simeon Career Academy, share successes and reflections from the 2022–23 academic year so far.)
Ninth grade continues to be a critical inflection point in a student’s academic trajectory. According to research from The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, young people who do well in 9th grade are 3x more likely to graduate from high school. That’s not the only goal, however. Beyond merely passing classes and reaching graduation day, NFSI considers a more significant “why,” which is supporting students in building a deep sense of identity and agency so that they can achieve their future goals and aspirations.
When asked what student success means to her, Alleia Hobbs, Executive Director at Fort Worth Independent School District, shared the following:
  • “Student success means everything to many educators. It’s your ‘why,’ your reason for being and doing what you do daily. This is our second year participating in the National Freshman Success Institute, and we have sophomores who participated in Freshman Success last year. It has been inspiring to hear from them the things they’ve learned as a freshman that have helped them this year. And even hearing from the sophomore teachers that are saying, “What did you do differently last year? This is the best group of sophomores we’ve ever had!” shows that the kids will continue to be the ‘why.’”
Hobbs concluded, “Ultimately, it’s about making sure they have positive trajectories in life through and after high school. When I hear from those kids, it means everything. It makes everything one does and struggles through worthwhile because the students themselves are showing you why AND how they will be successful.”
To learn more about the National Freshman Success Institute and register for the 2023–24 cohort, click here. In addition, follow NCS on social media to stay informed about upcoming programs, resources, tools, and organizational updates.