Hundreds of Tri-Cities students are at risk of not graduating. What parents need to know

Hundreds of high school sophomores in the Tri-Cities are in danger of not graduating on time.

They are the first group in Kennewick, Richland and Pasco schools facing a new state requirement to get 24 credits before earning their diploma.

Kennewick was the only district to release specific numbers on the problem. The school board was recently told that 88 sophomores at Southridge High School and 113 at Kamiakin and Kennewick high schools were off track by the end of their first semester.

Most of them were missing just a half credit to 1.5 credits, and only a year ago they wouldn’t have registered as being behind.

If the district did nothing, that could spell a drop in graduation rates for that class, said Ron Williamson, Kennewick’s assistant superintendent of secondary education.

They are taking action and reaching out to parents and students in hopes of learning more about what’s causing the lag and how to fix it.

Not enough time in the day

The change from the state requirement of 20 credits to 24 credits dates back more than a decade as part of a move by the Legislature and the state Board of Education to update what they believe high school students need to know.

In 2014, the Legislature approved the 24-credit plan that was scheduled to go into effect for the Class of 2019.

But the three Tri-City school districts requested and received waivers for two years to start the requirement.

Kennewick high
The Class of 2021 is the first in Kennewick, Richland and Pasco schools facing a new state requirement to earn 24 credits to graduate. File Tri-City Herald

While the added science, language and arts courses may help students be better prepared for college or work, they created a difficult math problem for districts.

Each student can take six classes during a school day. Over the course of a year, those classes each count for a credit.

That means if they take a class during each period, and pass them, they can earn enough credits to graduate.

“It sounds easy, right? But if anywhere along the line you don’t pass something, you get sick, you have an open period. If any of those things happen, you don’t get to 24,” Williamson said.

Pasco switch to trimesters

The school districts spent years preparing for the shift, but the biggest change came in Pasco, which enlisted a College and Career Ready Initiative committee in 2015, and they developed a plan that changed the graduation math.

The high schools cut one period a day, and then sliced the year into trimesters rather than in half, resulting in the addition of 1.5 credits to the school year.

“That change by the state board started a dialogue around innovating the high school experience,” Superintendent Michelle Whitney told the school board in a report last year. “Even if this 24-credit requirement wasn’t on the table they would still be looking at this schedule model because it allows for acceleration, exploration and innovation.”

It gave students chances to explore other interests by giving them more classes during a year, she said.

So far the change has been positive for both teachers and students, said Shane Edinger, the Pasco public affairs director.

Pasco’s high schools switched to trimesters to add earned credits toward the new graduation requirements. Noelle Haro-Gomez

However, it’s unclear at this point how many of the students might be off track to graduate.

While Kennewick and Richland didn’t change their schedule, they added ways to earn high school credits in middle school and they are working with parents to make them aware of the change.

“We’re looking for ways to make sure students can learn and meet graduation requirements,” said Ty Beaver, Richland’s communications director. “Our expectation is we’re going to get all of our students to graduation.”

Failed classes matter

Kennewick is the only district able to provide information on the number of sophomores who have fallen behind. They checked in on the Class of 2021 at the end of their first semester, Williamson said.

However, principals are still compiling reports about why the students lagged behind.

Some students may have simply not transferred high school credits that they earned in middle school, or they may have transferred into the district but haven’t brought along their transcript.

Students could be holding off for any number of reasons such as not liking a grade in their past.

“It’s not our valedictorian kid that we’re working about anyway. It’s more our kid that gets off track for any reason,” Williamson said. “The ones that are really the problem are the ones that get three or four failing grades right off the bat their freshman year.”

For many of these students, it’s the first time failing a class will have a lasting consequence.

When students are in elementary and middle schools, they can fail a class and still advance in the grade.

The problem starts when they reach high school and now failing a class does matter.

So school officials need to explain that if they don’t pass a class, they won’t earn the credit, and if they don’t earn the credit, they won’t graduate.

Encouraging parent involvement

As part of their education campaign, they are enlisting parents.

They put together a brochure, which explains both the ways students can earn credits before getting to high school and the ways they can get more credits while going to school.

Students have several options to pick up the classes they need, including taking classes before and after the school day, online courses and summer school.

Williamson encouraged parents to check in on how their students are doing using PowerSchool. They can see if their child is turning in their assignments, and how they’re doing in class before it becomes a problem.

The district is also tracking the students most at risk for not reaching graduation.

They might have problems with drugs, a dysfunctional family or just poor school and study habits. Each high school has at least one success coordinator and a grade-level counselor to help.

High schools have a list of students who are currently failing classes and it’s updated weekly.

“They start going out and seeking out the kids who are currently getting F grades before the semester ends,” Williamson said.

“They’ll call them in and talk to them, and say, ‘You’re currently failing your English class. I’m looking here and it looks like you’re missing three or four assignments. If we can get those in we can probably get you up to passing.”

They also offer tutoring before, during and after school, as well.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.