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Students at Kenwood academy walk through the hallways

“We like to think that it is too late when kids hit high school. There’s a lot of evidence coming from neuroscience which is telling us that the adolescent brain is another great window for changing their perceptions of the world and what is possible.”

—Jenny Nagaoka, Deputy Director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research

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 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 documentary provides insight into Chicago’s journey from “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 — a view of 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 large 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. To ensure that all education stakeholders have access to this information and story, the documentary is available for free public viewing on Vimeo and Youtube.

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 effectively support freshmen, so that the gains in student achievement seen in Chicago will be seen throughout the nation. 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. 

The Toolkit provides your school or district with valuable information on how to develop educator teams that are 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, as well as the likelihood that they graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education. The report shows that grades are a better predictor of future academic success than test scores. This suggests that students who have 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 freshman 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 course failure in the freshman year than test scores. Just 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 particularly better than expected in schools characterized by two features—supportive relationships between teachers and students, and a perception among students that the work they are doing in high school is preparing them for the future. The content of this report has been summarized into a series of short briefs. Download the PDFs:


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 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 OnTrack. The report explores more nuanced definitions of freshman and sophomore success that educators can use to better monitor and support students during sophomore year. The report is accompanied by a practitioner guide for educators, a highlights booklet with data insights from the report, and more. Read the report and explore our accompanying resources.


The To&Through Project Freshman Success Resources

The To&Through Project’s freshman success resources provide educators, students, and families with a set of tools to learn and spark conversations about what matters most for freshman success. Designed to engage a wide variety of audiences, the resources 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

Similar to The Second Window documentary, 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 greatly 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 OnTrack, the program-cum-movement that is translating knowledge into action—and revolutionizing how teachers grade, mete out discipline, and provide social, emotional, and academic support to their students. 

Read an excerpt from the book via The74, listen to the Schooled podcast episode about the book, or read 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.