Data help educators determine who is at risk of dropping out

EVERETT — There’s no single solution to help students who struggle to graduate from high school.

It takes a mix of ideas, said Joyce Stewart, deputy superintendent for the Everett School District. She and her team are focused on making sure students regularly attend school, have a teacher or another adult they trust, and find classes, clubs and sports that make school feel worthwhile.

Snohomish County school districts have seen an overall climb in graduation rates in the past few years. Last year, 85 percent of students graduated from local high schools within four years, according to new state data. That’s about 5 percentage points higher than in 2013.

Educators are monitoring data they hope will offer perspective on when and how schools can intervene to keep students on track.

Failing classes in their first year of high school is one of the key signals that a student may not graduate on time or at all. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction on Wednesday released information on graduation and ninth grade course failure rates. It’s the first year the ninth grade numbers have been reported statewide.

Roughly one in five of last year’s ninth grade students in Snohomish County failed at least one class. That’s more than 2,000 students. The county’s ninth grade course failure rate of 20.7 percent is slightly less than the statewide rate of 22.5 percent.

Research shows that failing ninth grade courses generally is a more reliable indicator that a student may not finish high school than are other factors, such as race or poverty, said Dixie Grunenfelder, director of secondary education for OSPI. Students who pass all their ninth grade classes are four times more likely to complete high school than those who fail classes, she said. A 2007 research report from the University of Chicago backs up those numbers.

Connections with students need to be made long before ninth grade, Stewart said. In elementary school, many of the signs that a student’s education may be an uphill battle already are there: absences, behavioral issues, and lack of resources and support.

“What I don’t want people to do is blame each other,” Stewart said. “Sometimes people like to say it was the elementary or it was the middle school or it was the high school. No. We need to work together and start at the elementary level.”

For the past two years, nine out of 10 students in the Everett School District have graduated on time, according to state data. It’s one of three districts in the county with a graduation rate of at least 90 percent. The others are Lake Stevens and Northshore.

A number of programs have been introduced or expanded in Everett schools over the past few years, Stewart said. The district focused on recruiting quality teachers and providing training on how to interact with students, particularly those who live in poverty. Schools have added to extracurricular activities, and advisers point students toward options that suit their interest. Now, robotics competitions gather crowds comparable to those at basketball games, Stewart said.

A summer school program for elementary students is going district wide and schools are pushing summer reading. Administrators and teachers work with nonprofits and churches to make sure students have food over the weekends. Meeting basic needs is critical for keeping kids focused.

In high school, a seventh period class has been added for students who haven’t been doing well in other courses. In middle school, eighth grade teachers work with ninth grade teachers to prepare students for high school.

“I think sometimes people forget that this is not new. Ninth graders struggle with transitions,” Stewart said.

In Everett high schools, 341 ninth grade students failed one or more classes last year. That’s 22.6 percent of freshmen.

The state data counts students who failed at least one math, science or English class. It does not include students who dropped classes.

The goal is to identify schools that have high graduation rates and low ninth grade course failure rates so officials can gather information on what’s working and share ideas with schools that are struggling to get kids to graduation, Grunenfelder said.

Smaller districts have higher ninth grade course failure rates than most of their larger neighbors. In Darrington and Granite Falls, about one in three students failed at least one freshman class in 2016. In 2015, more than one in three Sultan freshmen failed a class.

Marysville saw the highest course failure rate in the county. In 2016, 365 of the district’s 909 ninth graders failed at least one class. That’s 40 percent. The failing grades were fairly evenly distributed among math, science and English classes.

Marysville also has a lower proportion of students graduating than other medium or large districts in the county. About 75 percent of students who started high school with the class of 2016 graduated in four years. The district has improved its graduation rate since 2013, when it hovered around 70 percent.

Local districts look for volunteers willing to be tutors, coaches or mentors for students of all ages.

Stewart said adult volunteers are one of the best ways to help students keep up with studies and make school feel like a safe place. She believes one of the most underused resources in the community is the population of retirees who have years of experience and the time to help young people.

She plans to continue looking at the numbers for ninth grade course failures, chronic absences, student discipline and other indicators of trouble on the road to graduation. She expects the district will need to continually adjust programs to keep the graduation rate above 90 percent.

“Basically, whatever it takes,” Stewart said. “Whatever it takes to get students connected to school. That’s what we’re working on.”

Graduation and 9th grade course failure rates for 2016 (percent)
District Graduation rate 9th grade course failure rate
Arlington 77.9 24.9
Darrington 84.8 35.3
Edmonds 83.4 22.6
Everett 90.9 22.6
Granite Falls 70.4 32.1
Lake Stevens 92 20
Lakewood 86.6 31
Marysville 74.8 40.2
Monroe 83 14.6
Mukilteo 82.7 26.6
Northshore 91.7 5
Snohomish 86.8 14
Stanwood-Camano 84 14.2
Sultan 79.8 35*
Statewide 79.1 22.5

*2016 rate was not available, so 2015 rate is shown.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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