The documentary film, The Second Window: How a Focus on Freshmen Transformed a System (2020), spotlights the research that inspired Chicago Public Schools' bet on students' ninth-grade year—once considered "the throwaway year"—and catalyzed sustained, systemwide improvement. The early childhood years have long been recognized as a time of rapid brain development and the critical window for establishing positive life trajectories. However, mounting evidence from neuroscience, developmental psychology, and the education field points to a second window — the widely disdained and infamously "awkward" adolescent years.
The documentary provides insight into Chicago's journey from the "worst district in the nation" to a district leading the nation in its work to keep freshmen On-Track toward high school graduation and postsecondary success. In addition, this view shows how changing adults' mindsets about what is possible in mid-adolescence can change policy, practice, and lives. Designed to illuminate the real-life systems and structures that contributed to Chicago's significant gains in student achievement over the past two decades, the film provides a lens into crucial shifts in the city's education ecosystem, policies, and mindsets. The documentary is available for free public viewing on Vimeo and Youtube to ensure that all education stakeholders have access to this information and story.
Download the Discussion Guide!
Screening the documentary with others in your school, district, or organization is encouraged. To help facilitate dialogue that sparks ideas and action among your colleagues after the screening, download our discussion guide.
Resources to Support Freshman Success
The mission behind the film is to spur deeper investment in freshmen across the nation, whether through more widespread adoption of a freshman on-track indicator within accountability metrics or through providing school leaders and practitioners with the resources necessary to support freshmen effectively.
Please read below for more information about publicly available resources from the University of Chicago Network for College Success (NCS), Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), and To&Through Project.
Network for College Success Freshman On-Track Toolkit
The NCS Freshman On-Track Toolkit is a collection of protocols, reports, resources, and artifacts used by our experienced Coaches in their daily work to help schools better support students through the critical first year of high school. In addition, the toolkit provides your school or district with valuable information on how to develop educator teams focused on research, data, and successful practices to help freshmen succeed. Explore the toolkit.
UChicago Consortium Freshman OnTrack Research
The Predictive Power of Ninth Grade GPA
As parents and teachers know, and research has demonstrated, ninth grade is a critical year for students. This study provides evidence that students' course performance in ninth grade is strongly related to grades later in high school and the likelihood that they graduate from high school and pursue postsecondary education. In addition, the report shows that grades are a better predictor of future academic success than test scores, suggesting that students with strong freshman grades are likely to do well academically in the future. Read the research.
What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools
The authors found that grades are as predictive as On-Track indicators; almost all students with a "B" average or better at the end of their first-year graduate, compared to only a quarter of those with a "D" average. The research also revealed how critical attendance is for freshman success. Course attendance is eight times more predictive of failure in the freshman year than test scores. For example, one week of absence is associated with a much greater likelihood of failure, regardless of incoming achievement.
The authors also examine how school practices affect students' grades, failure rates, and attendance. Students' grades and attendance are notably better than expected in schools characterized by two features—supportive relationships between teachers and students AND a perception among students that their work in high school prepares them for the future. The content of this report is summarized into a series of short briefs. Download the Freshman Success Issue Briefs.
The Forgotten Year: Applying Lessons from Freshman Success to the Sophomore Year
The Forgotten Year: Applying Lessons from Freshman Success to the Sophomore Year is a research report published by the UChicago Consortium and To&Through Project that sheds light on a research-based set of indicators for sophomore year, building on the lessons of the Chicago Public School district's work around Freshman On-Track.
The report explores more nuanced definitions of freshman and sophomore success that educators can use to better monitor and support students during sophomore year. Read the full report, or explore the data insights booklet of highlights from the report. If you are a practitioner in Chicago, download the accompanying practitioner guide.
The To&Through Project Freshman Success Resources
The To&Through Project's freshman success resources provide educators, students, and families with tools to learn and spark conversations about what matters most for freshman success. The resources can engage a wide variety of audiences and include freshman-focused issue briefs, presentations, data insights, posters, and more. Explore the freshman success resources.
The Make-or-Break Year by Emily Krone Phillips
The New York Times best-selling book, The Make-or-Break Year, by Emily Krone Phillips, tells the story of how a simple idea—that reorganizing schools to get students through the treacherous transitions of freshman year dramatically increases the odds of those students graduating—changed the course of two Chicago high schools, an entire school system, and thousands of lives.
Marshaling groundbreaking research on the teenage brain, peer relationships, and academic performance, Krone Phillips details the emergence of Freshman On-Track. This program-turned-movement is translating knowledge into action—and revolutionizing how teachers grade, mete out discipline, and provide social, emotional, and academic support to their students. There are various methods to engage the text, including:
- Reading an excerpt from the book via The74
- Listening to the Schooled podcast episode about the book
- Reading Chalkbeat's interview with author Emily Krone Phillips and Chicago Public Schools Chief Equity Officer Maurice Swinney.
The book is available for purchase via the New Press.