High schools in the Federal Way Public Schools district will participate in a blended 3A/4A classification league for the first time ever starting next fall.
On Sunday, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) approved the next cycle of classification numbers for 2020-2024.
The WIAA, a private service organization that plans, supervises and administers the interscholastic activities approved and delegated by the school districts boards of directors, creates equitable playing conditions between high school sports teams in Washington, according to their website.
In total for the next cycle, 46 schools around the state chose to opt-up in classification, according to a WIAA press release, while the WIAA executive board and district directors approved the appeals of 10 schools and accepted the petition of nine schools petitioning down in football only.
All four of the FWPS high schools have 3A enrollment numbers, although stakeholders in the decision-making process have decided to create a split-classification league with other schools currently in the North Puget Sound League to maintain the same divisional alignment, district officials say.
“Really, that’s what we’re very excited about — being able to meet the needs of our individual high schools and the students that are within to offer them the level of classification that best meets their needs,” said FWPS Deputy Superintendent Dani Pfeiffer, noting stakeholders included coaches, high school principals and athletic directors.
“Our principals know their school communities best.”
The North Puget Sound League Cascade Division currently comprises Hazen, Kennedy Catholic, Kent Meridian, Kentlake, Kentridge, Kentwood and Mount Rainier high schools.
Auburn, Auburn Mountainview, Auburn Riverside, Decatur, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Thomas Jefferson and Todd Beamer high schools make up the current NPSL Olympic Division.
“Beginning with the 2020-24 classification cycle, schools will be assigned a classification based on pre-set enrollment thresholds as opposed to sorting schools into six evenly distributed classifications,” the press release stated.
The provided numbers are the average enrollments of students grades 9-11 as reported to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for the months of January, February, March, April, May, October, and doubled for November to compensate for the omission of September due to fluctuating enrollment numbers at the beginning of the school year, the WIAA noted.
The student enrollment ranges breakdown as follows: Class 4A: 1,300-plus students; Class 3A: 1,299-900 students; Class 2A: 899-450 students; Class 1A: 449-225 student; Class 2B: 224-105 students; and Class 1B:104-1 students.
“For the first time in WIAA history, free-and-reduced lunch counts were factored into the classification process as well,” the WIAA wrote.
For any school with a free and reduced lunch rate greater than the statewide average of 47%, the school’s enrollment number was reduced for each percent that they exceed the statewide average, the release continued, with a maximum adjustment capped at 40%.
Both Auburn and Federal Way districts said free and reduced lunch rates did not factor in to their classification decisions, while Kent School District athletic director Brian Smith said free and reduced lunch enrollments certainly were part of the equation in the decision-making process.
“We practice and promote equity and believe that this amendment will help address some competitive issues that schools deal with,” Smith told the Mirror. “Having the multi-classification league allows for the movement of schools between 3A-4A without the fear of losing the league affiliation.”
Decatur High School (enrollment 1,030) and Federal Way High School (enrollment 1,196) have opted-up to the 4A classification; Thomas Jefferson High School (enrollment 1,213) and Todd Beamer High School (enrollment 1,065) will remain in the 3A classification.
“As athletic directors, we came up with the idea of a blended league to keep our divisions the same,” said Jerry Peterson, FWPS director of equity and athletics. “For a majority of the time, we’re together. We’re keeping our rivalries, keeping that relationship …”
Along with maintaining the competition, the split league also allows for schools to have more presence at post season play and provide more exposure for the student-athletes, Pfeiffer said.
Many individual sports, such as tennis, cross country, track and field or swim and dive, have different time standards between the classifications.
For example, the 2019 WIAA track and field qualifying standards for the girls 800M race is 2:14.84 for 4A and 2:17.04 for 3A girls. The 2019 boys 3200M run varies from 4A qualifying time of 9:17.84 to 3A’s time standard of 9:21.88.
Therefore, the idea with multi-classification is that more kids will compete at league, district and state tournaments, said Rob Swaim, NPSL president and Auburn School District director of athletics and activities.
Another benefit to the blended league is the geographic proximity to other NPSL member schools, which cuts down on out-of-class time for student-athletes, Smith of Kent School District explained.
“The proximity of the schools in both the Olympic and Cascade division minimizes the transportation costs and time needed for the drivers to drop students-athletes and pick up for events,” Smith said.
In addition, closer contest sites mean family members who travel to away games will have less impact, he added.
With the blended league, the 2020-2024 4A portion includes Decatur, Federal Way, Kennedy Catholic, Kentridge, Kentwood, Mount Rainier and Tahoma, with Auburn, Auburn Mountainview, Auburn Riverside, Kentlake, Kent-Meridian, Thomas Jefferson and Todd Beamer completing the 3A side of the classification.
Any choice to opt-up lasts the entirety of the four-year classification cycle.
Enumclaw will drop to the 2A South Puget Sound League and Hazen will join the 3A KingCo Conference for 2020-2024.
The WIAA will now have 51 schools at the 4A level, 79 schools at 3A, 62 schools at 2A, 60 schools at 1A, 61 schools at 2B and 85 schools at 1B.
Yet with a blended league, one question still looms: What happens come postseason?
The WIAA board approved a two-year adjustment of the range for a 16-entry state tournament, which is now 50-68 member schools. 3A will have a 20-entry bracket for state tournaments, while 4A will have a 16-entry range.
“This was done to ensure schools that opted up and/or landed in classifications affected by appeals, would not be negatively impacted due to the appeal process,” the WIAA stated.
Kent’s Smith highlighted the outstanding competition provided by the NPSL, helping to prepare teams and individuals that qualify for the post-season while giving many developmental opportunities at sub-varsity as well.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Auburn’s Swaim said about the next steps for postseason logistics. “Right now I can tell you the NPSL is solid with the 3A/4A split multi-classification league.”