The Make-or-Break Year

Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time

An entirely fresh approach to ending the high school dropout crisis is revealed in this groundbreaking chronicle of unprecedented transformation in a city notorious for its “failing schools”

“You’ve got close to educational meltdown here in Chicago. Is there a worse case?” —William Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education

In eighth grade, Eric thought he was going places. But by his second semester of freshman year at Hancock High, his D’s in Environmental Science and French, plus an F in Mr. Castillo’s Honors Algebra class, might have suggested otherwise. Research shows that students with more than one semester F during their freshman year are very unlikely to graduate. If Eric had attended Hancock—or any number of Chicago’s public high schools—just a decade earlier, chances are good he would have dropped out. Instead, Hancock’s new way of responding to failing grades, missed homework, and other red flags made it possible for Eric to get back on track.

The Make-or-Break Year is the largely untold 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, journalist turned communications expert Emily Krone Phillips details the emergence of Freshman OnTrack, a 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.

This vivid description of real change in a faulty system will captivate anyone who cares about improving our nation’s schools; it will inspire educators and families to reimagine their relationships with students like Eric, and others whose stories affirm the pivotal nature of ninth grade for all young people. In a moment of relentless focus on what doesn’t work in education and the public sphere, Phillips’s dramatic account examines what does.


“A remarkable, even astonishing book. Detailed and compelling. . . . How a book about educational philosophy can also be a page-turner, I don’t know, but that’s what Krone Phillips has given us. Every educator in America needs to read The Make-or-Break Year—now.”
—Amy Ellis Nutt, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and co-author of The Teenage Brain
“I highly recommend this book for educators who seek to do more to advance equity and increase student success.”
—Pedro Noguera, director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA
“Refreshing and expertly reported . . . essential reading for anyone who cares about student success. It will profoundly change the way we see high school in America.”
—Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys
“In ninth grade, nothing matters more than belonging. With profound respect for both youth and their educators, this superb book sets out all the factors that make school a place where freshmen feel they belong.”
—Kathleen Cushman, author of Fires in the Bathroom
“A decisive, urgent case for intervening in the ninth grade . . . clear-eyed and hopeful, this book is required reading for anybody interested in addressing the dropout crisis.”
—Michelle Kuo, author of Reading with Patrick

Goodreads Reviews