Marisa Sullivan is determined to graduate on time.
But after the Pasco teen missed a lot of school since the seventh grade because of an undiagnosed health problem, it didn’t seem likely that she could earn her diploma on time.
Then, she started classes at Pasco’s New Horizons High School.
The courses at the alternative high school geared specifically for her level allowed her to catch up.
“Why we exist is to take students who are credit-deficient and provide them with a plan,” said Principal Seth Johnson.
New Horizons is just one of the programs Tri-City school districts are using to help students finish high school. Graduation rates are growing in the Tri-Cities and statewide.
But school officials say there are still too many dropouts.
Last year in the Tri-Cities, nearly 23 percent of the Class of 2016 didn’t earn a diploma.
Of the 3,445 students in Kennewick, Pasco and Richland expected to graduate, 773 didn’t earn their diploma in four years.
4-year high school graduation rate
79 percent Statewide
79.5 percent Richland School District
78.6 percent Kennewick School District
75 percent Pasco School District
84.5 percent Finley School District
80 percent Prosser School District
76 percent Columbia School District
72.6 percent Kiona-Benton City School District
Statewide, the percentage of students graduating in four years hit an all-time high of 79 percent last year.
The Richland School District continued to outpace the state average with 79.5 percent.
Kennewick high schools graduated 78.6 percent — improving for a fourth year in a row.
And the Pasco School District’s graduation rate also rose to nearly 75 percent.
The Finley School District, with 84.5 percent, and Prosser, with 80 percent, were higher than the state average.
And the Columbia School District in Burbank saw its rate grow to 76 percent. And while the Kiona-Benton City School District lagged behind other districts in the region, its graduation rate improved to 72.6 percent.
Kennewick School District
Many students don’t graduate because they lose hope, said Kennewick’s Ron Williamson, assistant superintendent of secondary education.
They fail some classes, fall further behind, become frustrated and begin to think they won’t ever make it out of high school so they just give up, he said.
“Our teachers take the approach that we’re going to be there and support them,” Williamson said. “We’ll always be there as long as you’ve got that hope.”
In the past seven years, the Kennewick School District’s graduation rate increased by more than 5 percent.
Kennewick High led the improvement with 17 percent more of its students earning a degree within four years.
Our teachers take the approach that we’re going to be there and support them. We’ll always be there as long as you got that hope.
Ron Williamson, Kennewick School District
All the high schools are using coordinators to track down kids and give them any support they need, such as extra tutoring.
The schools also instituted a program aimed at giving students who are close to passing a class two weeks after the end of a semester to earn a grade.
School officials also aim to become part of a student’s support system.
“The schools are always giving tips to parents,” Williamson said, such as recommending they provide quiet time for students to do homework. They advise parents to make sure they aren’t distracting their children by turning on the television.
“Poverty is the biggest area where we have kids struggle in schools,” he said.
Lower-income parents want their students to be in school, but aren’t able to provide them structure at home because they’re busy trying to make sure basic needs are met, Williamson said.
Poverty is the biggest area where we have kids struggle in schools.
Ron Williamson, Kennewick School District
Last year, almost 92 percent of non-low-income students in Kennewick received a degree, compared with 68 percent of low-income students, according to state figures. The gap is slightly wider than the state average.
While it may not help the statistics, Williamson doesn’t want to give up on students who have already left school. The district started a drive called “We Want You Back” to get students to return to finish their coursework.
District officials contacted 100 students last summer, trying to encourage them back. About 40 returned for classes at Columbia Basin College’s High School academy or at one of the district’s two alternative high schools — Phoenix or Legacy.
Pasco School District
Pasco High School has seen the greatest graduation rate improvement in the Pasco district. In 2011, 60 percent of the graduates received a diploma in four years. Last year, it was 84 percent.
Much of the effort mirrors what Kennewick schools are doing. School officials established early warning systems to spot students who receive too many failing grades and reach out to them.
“While we have some gaps to close, we’re seeing some real positive trends with children in the system,” said Erich Bolz, the assistant superintendent of instructional services.
The district also looks for students with behavior or attendance problems.
An 80 percent graduation rate sounds great unless your personal child is in that 20 percent.
Erich Bolz, Pasco School District
“I think with Pasco’s commitment to bilingual education, to staff training issues around poverty, continuing to look at attendance, behavior and course completion ... We should continue to see improved results,” Blotz said.
Pasco High offers students Saturday sessions when they can come in and work on assignments. The school also offers tutoring and online classes.
Superintendent Michelle Whitney introduced in 2016 five long-term goals — each one a milestone for moving closer to a goal of every student graduating and on a career path.
They include all students reading at a third-grade level in third grade, passing algebra by ninth grade, engaging in extracurricular activities and having all ninth-graders on track to graduate.
As the district begins to figure out how to meet the goals, it should lead to continuing improvements in the graduation rate.
“It’s not OK for us to not strive for the greatest possible graduation rate,” said Bolz.
“An 80 percent graduation rate sounds great unless your personal child is in that 20 percent,” he said.
Richland School District
While many Richland students are graduating on time, the district’s average rate has hung around 80 percent for four years.
The graduation rate at the traditional high schools, Richland and Hanford, has run at nearly 90 percent.
One of the first places school officials look is at middle school students who might struggle when they start high school, said Todd Baddley, the assistant superintendent of instruction and secondary schools.
Richland’s early warning system watches attendance, grades, discipline problems and whether the student receives a free or reduced lunch.
Schools use the information in different ways.
Struggling students many times do not experience a positive connection to another student or adult. Many students entering high school may not know the proper etiquette or what is expected of them.
Todd Baddley, Richland School District
Richland High calculated 10 percent of its freshman class were at risk and assigned administrators to meet daily with half of the students, asking questions, visiting homes and making family connections.
The other half are meeting weekly with a counselor or administrator.
To combat the lack of positive role models for some students, the district turned to community groups, teachers and fellow student groups to act as mentors.
Richland also formed student-assistance teams to brainstorm solutions, Baddley said.
Staff members greet students each day with a handshake, calling students by name and greeting them with a positive comment.
“Struggling students many times do not experience a positive connection to another student or adult,” Baddley said. “Many students entering high school may not know the proper etiquette or what is expected of them.”