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September 22, 2016

High schools reach landmark graduation rate

When Laura Jepsen, Kennewick High School’s graduation success coordinator, was told one of her former students wanted to see her, she didn’t know what to expect.

He had frequently fought her efforts to keep him on track with his classes. But he did graduate and Jepsen was sure she’d never see him again.

But when she met him at Kennewick High’s office, “he had the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen,” Jepsen said. He told her he was going to school, had a job and was excited for his future.

“To see someone who can put his shoulders back and be happy for what lies ahead, that’s the world,” Jepsen said.

Kennewick High along with Kamiakin and Southridge high schools recorded extended graduation rates of more than 90 percent at the end of the 2015-16 school year. That’s above the state average of 81.1 percent and it’s the first time in district history the three schools have met that goal of the Kennewick School Board in the same school year.

Each school increased its rate by at least 17 percentage points compared to where it was eight years ago. All were recently provided School Achievement Awards in recognition of their success.

“You’ve got kids now who’ve achieved a high school diploma, who’ve met that milestone,” said Assistant Superintendent Ron Williamson. “You’ve improved the chances of those kids having successful lives.”

The district began looking at how to get more kids to graduation in 2010 after the board set the 90 percent extended graduation rate threshold.

Challenges facing many students, from poverty and language barriers to mental health and motivational issues, led to the extended graduation rate being chosen as a more accurate measure of student success. The rate is based on the five-year cohort and includes students who graduate a year after their senior year.

The district hired graduation success coordinators at the three high schools to directly monitor student academic performance. It also adopted a model used in the Everett School District where student grades are regularly analyzed by administrators to determine who needs more support.

Duties of the graduation success coordinators are unique at each school as the coordinator and administrators tailor their efforts to their school’s students. Kennewick High’s Jepsen has focused almost exclusively on seniors who are several credits shy of graduating.

Jepsen puts at-risk students on academic contracts requiring attendance at after-school or lunch hour tutoring sessions if they fall behind in their classes. She checks in with teachers to make sure all a student’s work is accounted for. If any senior ends up on the school’s master list showing they are failing a class, they soon get a visit from Jepsen.

And she connects students with the school counselor if there are issues from outside the classroom they need help resolving.

“I always keep the focus on that they’re going to finish,” Jepsen said.

Similar efforts are used at Southridge and Kamiakin. The Extended Day program at Southridge has helped that school keep kids on track with their classes when they would otherwise fall behind because they’ve been suspended or kicked out of a class. Kamiakin has focused on having smaller classes for underclassmen in core subjects, leading to better student-to-teacher ratios that have improved student performance.

Counselors, migrant education coordinators and resources such as the Communities In Schools program provide further support.

“When all those pieces come together, you get great results,” Williamson said.

Kamiakin High
94% Five-Year Cohort Graduation Rate

Kennewick High
91.1% Five-Year Cohort Graduation Rate

Southridge High
91.9% Five-Year Cohort Graduation Rate