In the ninth-grade classes where Alyssa Jilek roams, excuses like "the dog ate my homework" just don't fly.

By the end of lunch on a typical day, she knows how many students did not turn in assignments that were due in the morning. During study hall that same day, she corrals them to finish science labs, essays and other missing work. "OK, let's get this done right now so you don't get behind," she tells them.

Jilek, an educational assistant at Northfield High School, is one ingredient in the school's new recipe for boosting freshman achievement: A ninth-grade academy that gives extra support to the 66 students deemed to need it most.

The academy is designed to combat what Principal Joel Leer calls "a rather inauspicious pattern in the ninth grade." Last year, a quarter of Northfield's freshmen failed at least one course. More than a quarter missed 10 or more days of school. Nearly a third had discipline referrals.

The problem is hardly unique to Northfield, Leer said: Starting high school can be tough, emotionally and academically, and many schools nationwide try to intervene with struggling students.

Northfield's program owes much to similar efforts in Owatonna and St. Louis Park, he said.

Unlike other freshmen, students in the academy take three core classes in a group, as they might in a middle school "house." Mornings, they're together for English, social studies and science. Then they have seminar -- a class period that Leer described as a "study hall on steroids."

In the afternoon, they join the rest of the freshmen for classes such as math and physical education.

Academy social studies teacher Jill Ertl -- who has worked with at-risk students her entire career -- said the ninth-grade academy is more structured and data-driven than some programs she's seen.

"It is by far the most exciting opportunity I've had as a teacher," she said.

Some intervention programs end up serving a mishmash of students, but those in the ninth-grade academy were chosen for specific reasons, Ertl said.

Program organizers first looked for eighth-graders who were having trouble with reading, as measured on standardized tests. Then they narrowed that list by looking at grades and attendance, and by taking input from teachers and counselors, Leer said.

Teachers say it's too soon to judge the academy's success, but the initial signs are good: After one semester, for example, 95 percent of the academy's students had earned credit in history, with the rate even higher for English and science.

"Last year, I kind of slacked off," said Tyler Van Cleave, a freshman in the academy. "This year, I kind of made sure I'd have a good foundation for high school."

In eighth grade, Van Cleave said he was "lucky to get C's and D's." But when he was interviewed by a reporter last month, he said he was on the honor roll.

Students in the academy do exactly the same lessons as their peers in regular freshman classes, Ertl said. "The pace is the same, the rigor is the same, the content is identical."

One difference is that teachers and students get to know each other better -- they're in smaller classes of about 22, and students move from one morning class to the next in groups. Teachers in the academy have a common prep time when they can talk about their students' progress and needs. Students who are struggling are encouraged to stay after school for extra supervised study. There's an extra emphasis on skill-building in reading.

And with Jilek's help, teachers can track down students before the end of the day if they fall behind. "We try to stop the bleeding right away," she said.

"She's their worst nightmare," said Ertl, laughing.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016