Bellingham students will soon need more credits to graduate. Here’s what you need to know

Students from Sehome High School’s robotics club, the Sehome Seamonsters, tighten the frame of a robot they built for an international competition in April 2016. As part of its new graduation requirements, Bellingham Public Schools will offer more elective classes, like robotics, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.
Students from Sehome High School’s robotics club, the Sehome Seamonsters, tighten the frame of a robot they built for an international competition in April 2016. As part of its new graduation requirements, Bellingham Public Schools will offer more elective classes, like robotics, beginning in the 2017-18 school year. aabell@bhamherald.com

Starting with the Class of 2021, Bellingham high school students will need to earn 30 credits in high school before they can graduate, an increase from the district’s long-standing 23-credit requirement.

Bellingham Public Schools’ board of directors on Thursday night unanimously approved the change, which will apply to next year’s freshmen and the classes that follow.

The new requirements were spurred by changes at the state level, said Steve Clarke, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. They also coincide with Bellingham high schools’ shift to a new schedule, a change that is expected to cost around $2 million.

Credits for elective classes make up the majority of the increase, creating opportunities for students to take more classes on topics that interest them, Clarke said.

Clarke answered other questions about the new credit requirements.

Why was the district considering the increase in the first place?

The impetus for the increase, Clarke said, was a decision by the state Board of Education to raise graduation requirements from 20 credits to 24, beginning with the class of 2019. That class started its freshman year in the fall of 2015.

Bellingham Public Schools applied for and was granted a two-year waiver to implement the state requirements in 2021.

The other driving factor was comment from students expressing interest in more elective classes than the ones already offered, Clarke said. Some students, he added, have had to skip certain electives to meet their core education requirements.

Where additional credits were added?

The seven added credits come in the following areas:

▪ Art, adding one credit for a total of two.

▪ Science, adding one credit for a total of three.

▪ Career and technical education, adding half a credit for a total of one and a half.

▪ Electives, adding 4 1/2 credits for a total of 9 1/2.

In the cases of art and science, the added credits adhere to new requirements from the state that apply to the classes of 2021 and beyond.

The added half credit in career and technical education, Clarke said, is a technology literacy course primarily meant for next year’s freshmen. The class is meant to teach technology fundamentals, like commonly used computer software, internet ethics and how to care for electronic devices.

Is this change related to the change in start times for high school students?

“They’re not completely related,” Clarke said. “They’re happening at the same time, but one has not necessarily caused the other.”

Still, he added, implementing both changes simultaneously has its advantages.

The new start times also come with a new block schedule for high school students, meaning they will take two sets of four classes that alternate each day for a total of eight classes per semester. The current schedule only allows for six classes per semester.

The current schedule also allocates some electives, like jazz band, to a before-school slot at 6:30 a.m. called zero period. Because buses do not run that early, those classes were typically only available to a select group of students.

The new eight-class layout leaves room to work those classes into the regular schedule, Clarke said.

“A lot of students would have loved to be part of those classes that didn’t have transportation,” Clarke said. “That just didn’t seem equitable.”

Though the classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020 will not get a full four years under the new schedule, they still will get the benefit of adding electives during their remaining high school years. Those students are still only required to earn 23 credits, Clarke said, but officials expect they will earn more.

Will adding credits make graduating more difficult?

Since the majority of the added credits are for elective classes, school officials expect that students will add classes they want to take. District surveys of students show high demand for more elective classes, Clarke said.

School officials plan to add classes like aerospace manufacturing, robotics, computer science, sports medicine, and interior design to the course catalog. In some cases, those classes already were offered on some campuses and now will expand to others.

“For the most part, what we’re offering is more courses kids want to take. We don’t see that as a burden; we see that as an opportunity,” Clarke said. “I think we’ll have more kids graduating than less.”

The schedule also gives students a little more breathing room, Clarke said. The new schedule will give students the chance to earn 32 credits, but since they only need 30 to graduate, missing one credit because of a failed class doesn’t automatically mean they can’t graduate on time.

The current schedule, Clarke said, only allows for 24 possible credits with a 23-credit requirement, leaving little room for error – and no room for error under the state’s new requirements.

What do these changes mean for teachers?

Though many of the new classes came from student suggestions, teachers also made some proposals, Clarke said.

Under the current six-period schedule, teachers teach five classes each day and use one period as a planning period, Clarke said. With the new schedule, teachers will teach three classes per day with one period for planning, for a total of six out of eight courses.

The added classes will require more teachers, Clarke said. The district hired more staff last year in anticipation of the schedule change, but intends to add as many as 14 high school teachers between this school year and next, Clarke said.

The district employs about 130 high school teachers, he said.

What will these changes cost?

The district expects the new eight-period schedule to cost about $2 million, Clarke said.

Most of that, about $1.3 million, he said, will go toward hiring teachers; another $200,000 will go to hiring support staff. The remaining $500,000 will go to materials and other resources for the new classes, like textbooks, Clarke said.

As part of a lawsuit against the state Legislature over statewide education funding, the state increased its allocations to districts like Bellingham, Clarke said. The district has set aside that additional funding to cover those costs, he added.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan