Comment: Teams improving on-time grad rates for 9th graders

Ninth Grade Success Teams are working for students across the state. The program deserves expansion.

By Marko Liias / For The Herald

As a proud graduate of Kamiak High School (class of 1999), I am often reminded in the Legislature of how great the gap can feel between our adolescent experiences and what comes later in life as an adult.

That gap can be measured in a lot of ways; differences in opportunity, in educational resources, and in support from the community. But few gaps are greater than those between students who finish high school on time and those who don’t.

We can support students well before the alarm bells ring. If a student passes all of their classes during the freshman year of high school, they are four times more likely to graduate on time. This is where Ninth Grade Success Teams of teachers, counselors and administrators come in, partnering with students, parents and other educators to keep students on track during the critical transition into high school. The investments needed to allow five more schools to utilize this program are modest, but the impacts will be transformational.

First started in Washington as a pilot program funded by the Legislature in 2019, Ninth Grade Success Teams follow a proven, data-driven approach to help teachers and administrators support students at risk of not graduating high school on time. The pilot yielded early and positive outcomes for kids, with four of the five participating districts seeing double-digit improvements in their ninth grade on-track rates; a critical measure of success tracked in every Washington high school. In 2021, the program was further expanded using one-time federal pandemic relief funding allocated by the state Legislature and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Ninth Grade Success Teams have now been implemented in 30 schools across the state. Two of these schools — Mariner and Kamiak High School — are in the Mukilteo School District. At Mariner, ninth graders who might otherwise disengage later in high school have responded enthusiastically to new Freshman Seminar courses that create opportunities to identify their goals and plan for their futures. Ninth Grade Success Teams have also served as extra support during the pandemic by making it easier for each student to get what they need for a successful education. Right now, at Kamiak, time together as a team allows staff to identify which students need the most support before a failed class affects their trajectory in high school.

Washington is already seeing the positive outcomes of this approach in districts throughout the state. In 2021, one Washington school saw on-track rates quadruple after just the first quarter of implementing a Ninth Grade Success Team approach. Data across other schools also continues to reflect ongoing improvements in student-teacher relationships. I am inspired by the overwhelmingly positive feedback the Ninth Grade Success Team program has received from educators, and I look forward to evaluating the outcomes of this hard work as more data becomes available later in the school year. Behind all of these numbers are educators who feel supported, and students that have a greater opportunity to graduate high school on-time and prepared for their next steps in life.

Planning for the future is a complicated process, especially when you’re just beginning high school and navigating an ongoing pandemic. Students, like many of us, have had to work hard to adapt and face the challenges that the covid pandemic has brought with it. But it is the hard work of educators like those at the Ninth Grade Success Team at Mariner and Kamiak that can remind us of the importance of hope and resilience; especially during these challenging times.

Our students and teachers alike deserve a learning environment that sets them up for success. That’s why I urge my colleagues to increase our investment in Ninth Grade Success Teams this year so that we can help more kids graduate high school on time and prepare for their next steps.

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, represents the 21st Legislative District and is chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and a graduate of Mukilteo public schools.

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