Levy funding critical as Federal Way high school graduation rate increases

Thomas Jefferson High School students Naikosini Tuipulotu (left) and Stephanie Marshall (right) participate during a credit retrieval-focused class. - Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools
Thomas Jefferson High School students Naikosini Tuipulotu (left) and Stephanie Marshall (right) participate during a credit retrieval-focused class.
— image credit: Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools

After several years of stagnant high school graduation rates, Federal Way Public Schools administrators believe they are turning the tide. What’s driving this change is a shift in how individual students are supported.

In 2013, the district experienced a nearly three point increase in the number of high school students graduating. Looking at the four comprehensive high schools only, the average is a five point increase to 77 percent, which matches the state average, and is the highest rate for the district since 2005.

“This is a very positive uptick, and, combined with three years of positive first semester grade trends, suggests we are on the right track,” said Superintendent Rob Neu. “Among the many challenges high school dropouts face is the struggle to find a living-wage job. This doesn’t impact just them and their families. It’s estimated that U.S. citizens pay up to $350 billion annually to support dropouts.”

A significant part of the trend is that every ethnic group saw their graduation rates increase. The greatest increase occurred among African American students, whose graduation rate increased by nearly 10 points between 2012 and 2013. Asian students’ graduation rates increased by 7.7 points, and Hispanic students’ graduation rates increased by 2.5 points. Pacific Islander and white students also saw their graduation rates modestly increase.

What’s the district’s secret sauce? A new approach is underway that treats students as individuals with unique needs and then offers multiple options to help them be successful. For high school students at risk of not graduating, this means there is more than one path to graduation. The trick is finding the one that works for them.

A key reason that students drop out is that, once they fall behind, they don’t see a way to catch up.  For many, this slippery slope begins early on when they enter ninth grade. Joni Hall, Todd Beamer High School’s principal, notes that educators have learned students need intervention early, ideally in the ninth grade, if they are falling behind in credits.

“Students will often remain in school, but without prompting, may not take action to make up credits for courses they have failed,” Hall says. “They continue to fall further behind until 12th grade comes around and they realize they are hopelessly behind.” Students who drop out at younger ages usually have other factors coming into play, she notes.

The traditional approach has been to wait until students were failing before intervening. The district’s new model kicks in early with at-risk kids to keep them on track, and requires providing multiple options for success, including after-school instruction and homework groups and a variety of ways to make up credits.

“We have learned there is no silver bullet that works for all kids,” said Liz Drake, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School. “Students are individual learners and have different needs. We need to put more options in play.”

Recognizing this, Thomas Jefferson High School developed a range of programs that give kids ways to earn credits, take classes outside of the regular school day, and make up lost ground. The goal is to enable them to keep making progress toward graduation.

And it’s working. Thomas Jefferson’s graduation rate jumped nearly eight points in the past year.

“Collection of Evidence” classes focus on students who struggle with math and typical exams. Using practical examples, students are able to show competence in math and earn credits they would not have been able to make up through traditional classes and exams.

The school’s innovative Math English Science History (MESH) program is also making a difference. MESH uses technology to enable seniors to retrieve missing credits online while working with a classroom teacher. Similar to an online study program, students can earn multiple credits when out of school while continuing to attend traditional classes, helping them make up for missing credits.

In another program, Raider Way, teachers are working with students after school to provide additional instruction and support. The goal is to keep struggling students from failing. Every day, nearly 60 students take advantage of Raider Way to augment their classroom instruction.

“This past year we had 100 seniors working to earn missing credits to make graduation, and nearly 300 across all grade levels,” Drake said. “We want to keep them motivated and believing that graduation is worthwhile.”

College Preparation Day, another innovative program developed by Federal Way schools, had an unintended side benefit last year. The district pays for all seniors to take the SAT at school as part of the day’s activities. Dave Davis, the district’s director of assessment, notes that 94 students in the district met the state’s graduation requirement in at least one subject area by earning the state-required score on the SAT.

The district’s work to improve high school graduation rates, particularly in the face of high mobility, rising poverty, and a growing non-English speaking population, is challenging and takes time. One lesson learned leads to another, these principals agree. Indications are these efforts are paying off and that steady progress is being made.

Innovative efforts such as these also take money. Sufficient funding and staffing are necessary to offer programs that go over and above the traditional core classes.

Levy funding is a key component to providing programs that get results.

While the district’s official graduation goal of 92 percent by the 2019-2020 school year is consistent with neighboring districts’ goals, Neu has publicly said his personal goal is a 100 percent graduation rate.

“It is our moral imperative,” he said. “How could we aim for anything less?”


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