Lawmakers consider how to better prepare high school kids

Can they implement a 24-credit graduation standard without more hours of school?

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2014 

FILE - Dressed in their cap and gowns, Yelm High School seniors are silhouetted against the wooden ceiling of the Tacoma Dome during commencement exercises. (The Olympian file, 2008)

STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

State lawmakers have long agreed that a high school diploma in Washington should do more to prepare students to attend college or start a career.

In 2009, legislators set their sights on new graduation standards that would require students to take 24 credits of coursework instead of 20. The idea was to develop minimum course requirements for high school graduation that mirrored those for college entry, while still leaving room for students to take electives or pursue an alternative path of career and technical education.

But just as lawmakers are being asked to finally require districts to move to the 24-credit diploma, some lawmakers are questioning what had been seen as a key tenet of their plan.

Lawmakers in 2009 pledged to increase classroom time for older students from 1,000 hours per year to 1,080 hours per year to help schools meet the demand for more courses under a 24-credit curricula.

Now some are reconsidering whether increasing classroom time is the right way to go.

Education leaders in the state Senate want to redirect $97 million in school funding toward increasing the credit requirements for high school graduation rather than using that money to add minutes to the school day.

The Legislature set aside the $97 million in the state budget last year so that schools could start offering an additional 80 hours of instructional time per year starting this fall.

But school districts came back this year saying that they’re having trouble implementing the 1,080-hour-per-year requirement. Common complaints included that changing schools’ starting and ending times would wreak havoc on bus schedules, as well as school districts’ contracts with teachers unions.

“It’d probably cost us about $2.5 million to implement because of the need for (contract) negotiations,” said Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District. Bethel is getting only $1.9 million from the state to help the district meet the 1,080-hour requirement, Seigel said.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers would like to see more money put toward adopting the 24-credit graduation standard, particularly to hire more high school guidance counselors who could help students understand the new graduation requirements. The 24-credit model developed by the state Board of Education also calls for additional staff, called parent engagement coordinators, to help students and their families determine students’ educational path.

“My biggest fear is a student who’s in ninth grade fails an English class, and suddenly he’s not on track to graduate,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “Having a counselor there to help them navigate is just critical.”

Last week, two state senators introduced a plan to relax the 1,080-hour requirement and focus instead on implementing the 24-credit graduation standard.

Senate Bill 6552 would reroute last year’s $97 million toward hiring more high school guidance counselors, as well as buying additional supplies that could support the increased science lab requirements of a 24-credit graduation plan.

If passed, the bill would no longer require schools to offer 1,080 hours of class time per year for students in grades 7-12. Instead, it would let districts calculate instructional time using a district-wide average of hours taught in all grades, excluding kindergarten.

That approach would mean each school in a district, on average, would need only to reach a goal of 1,027 hours per year — a more modest increase from the current 1,000-hour-per-year requirement.

It also would mean that some schools at the high school level could offer fewer instructional hours per year, as long as other schools in the district offered more class time to help pick up the slack. The changes to school instructional hours would start in 2015-16.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup who helped draft the legislation, said that he doesn’t think every school needs to provide 1,080 hours of class time to enforce a 24-credit graduation requirement.

“It’s really not about how much time a student sits in a chair,” Dammeier said. “It’s about what is the right programming to get them to be prepared. With 24 credits, that’s where we’re setting the bar.”

The Senate proposal would direct school districts to implement a 24-credit graduation standard starting with the class of 2019, who are today’s seventh-graders.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island, said the Legislature must adjust rules for how school districts increase instructional hours or it will be “flushing money down the toilet.”

“They’re going to need to use the money for busing and things that don’t work,” Rolfes said.

Some lawmakers, however, aren’t so sure about backing away from the 1,080-hour requirement that the Legislature approved in 2009.

Ross Hunter, the chief budget writer in the state House, said he thinks middle and high school students need 1,080 hours of class time to remain competitive with students around the world.

“I think it would be a hard thing to describe an educational reason why you would want to not provide funding for 1,080 hours,” Hunter said Friday. “I don’t see a need to move any of the money around in the budget.”

At the same time, Hunter said he thinks the Legislature needs to implement a 24-credit graduation requirement this session.

So does the State Board of Education, the organization responsible for developing the specifics of the state’s proposed 24-credit graduation standard.

“Even if we do it now, we’re talking about the class of 2019,” said Ben Rarick, the state board’s executive director. “Any further than that, it gets to the point where people really start to question whether we have the courage of our convictions on this issue.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 melissa.santos@ thenewstribune.com

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