As the new school year quickly approaches, some high schools in Central Washington are zeroing in on how they can help ninth-graders be more successful.

That’s because freshman year outcomes have been found to be a key indicator of the likelihood of high school graduation.

“Students are four times more likely to graduate if they pass all of their classes freshman year. So it’s just a hugely important year,” said Libuse Binder, executive director of Stand for Children Washington.

Washington ranks 44th in the nation for graduation rates, with a 79.4 percent graduation rate compared to the national average of 84.6 percent, according to the nonprofit education advocacy group.

In 2018, just 73.9 percent of freshmen statewide were on track to graduate by passing all classes in the ninth grade.

This past legislative session, lawmakers approved $250,000 over the next two years for a pilot program to address this gap.

Central Washington was seen as a “high-needs area,” leading the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI, to focus the funds locally, said Katherine Mahoney, the state body’s assistant director of policy for system and school improvement.

Rather than running an entire program on those funds, OSPI is partnering with a new Stand with Children program, the Center for High School Success.

The center, launched earlier this month, will offer training for partner schools on data-based intervention on a one-by-one basis, such as by addressing tutoring needs or attendance. It then provides coaches who meet regularly with school teams to continue training in data analysis and intervention.

It’s starting with a handful of partners.

Grandview and Toppenish school districts in Yakima County are among eight initial districts to partner with the center. A few more are expected to join soon. All but one district is east of the Cascades.

In Toppenish, OSPI information shows 54.5 percent of ninth-graders were on track in 2018.

The center is modeled on a similar program in Memphis, Tenn., that saw an increase of 30 percent of freshman students on track to graduate in the 2018-19 school year across 13 participating schools. It’s free to the partner schools, but is projected to cost the center $850,000 for the first year.

The OSPI funds will go to additional school costs for five districts, which have not been announced yet, but overlap with the center’s initial eight partners. The funds can be used to bring in substitutes so that teachers can attend training or pay for data programs.

Ninth-grade teams

Each school partnering with the center forms a ninth-grade success team made up of school staff such as freshmen teachers, counselors and attendance administrators. They are asked to meet regularly to identify students with potential needs, such as kids with poor attendance or previously failed classes. A plan is then drawn up to address each student’s individual needs.

Each school will address the gap in student success differently based on their student population, said Kefi Anderson, program manager for OSPI’s 9th Graders on Track work. Running interference could mean providing a mentor or tutor to a student, for example.

Binder said one recent example involved simply talking to a new freshman couple about balancing social life and school.

By eliminating small issues like that, teachers and administrators are freed up to better meet the needs of marginalized students such as students of color, English as a second language and low-income students, said Katie Gustainis, communications director for Stand with Children.

“We’re here to make sure that we’re helping the kids that the system isn’t serving as it is, so the work is in equity and inclusion focus, and leading with equity is embedded in this approach,” she said.

In Grandview, graduation rates have improved dramatically since an attendance program was rolled out four years ago districtwide. But the district still sees an 87.4 percent graduation rate across four years.

“That still leaves about 15 percent of our students who are not graduating,” said Jose Rivera, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. He said the equity focus of the new program brought him a lot of hope that they might see greater high school success in the coming year.

“I really love that they led with equity,” he said of the new center’s training. “You have to know your students, who they are, and be able to welcome them, embrace them. Because if you don’t know who they are, how can you meet their needs?”

By participating in the Center for High School Success program, Rivera said he hopes to see each ninth-grader at Grandview pass every class. Going into the school year starting on Aug. 22, he said the school’s ninth-grade success team was already looking at the incoming freshman class’ attendance and achievement from last year to plan potential student interventions.

“As soon as they come in, we should be able to embrace those students,” he said. “I think it’s going to pay dividends down the road.”

A previous version of this article said that Yakima's East Valley School District was part of the Center for High School Success program. East Valley in Spokane is involved.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka