Whatcom districts differ over handling new high school graduation requirements

A new requirement that makes it harder for high school students to earn a diploma has raised staffing and scheduling issues for Whatcom County schools.

The state mandate passed last year by the Legislature requires the class of 2019 — students currently in eighth grade — to earn 24 credits to graduate from high school, instead of the 20 credits currently required by the state. That means a high school student who takes six classes per day for four years won’t graduate on time if they fail one class.

“Right now, if you’re in a district that’s in a six-period day, it doesn’t give you much room to mess up,” said Bellingham School District Superintendent Greg Baker.

He said graduation rates could suffer as a result.

“I’m concerned.” Baker said. “It’s too tight right now.”

Schools on six-period days have been left with a few options:

• Create more credit opportunities by changing the school schedule;

• Keep the same schedule and offer more classes before or after the normal school day;

• Apply for a state waiver delaying the requirement until 2021 for more time to address the issues.

Bellingham School District recently asked parents for their opinion on a proposal that would have extended middle and high school days by half an hour. The longer schedule would have allowed for seven periods in a day.

But the proposal also included starting the elementary school day 45 minutes earlier, and elementary school parents balked at the idea. The district nixed the plan.

Baker said no more schedule changes are on the table. The district now is considering applying for the two-year waiver.

“That doesn’t solve all the problems, but it might give a little more breathing room,” Baker said.

Blaine, Lynden districts opt for waiver

Blaine and Lynden school districts already applied for the two-year waiver.

Blaine Superintendent Ron Spanjer said the district needs to address several issues. The main concern is that with the six-period day, the high school will have to figure out a way to structure credit recovery for students.

“The reality is, not every student is going to pass every single course,” Spanjer said.

Jim Frey, Lynden School District superintendent, said Lynden may consider scheduling changes at the high school. The district needs a little more time to make sure the right decisions are made, he said.

The additional credit requirements specifically target science, art, and world language courses. One more lab science class and one more art class are required on top of the current standards. Two more world language credits are required.

For students with what’s called “personalized pathway requirements,” such as specific Career and Technical Education courses, those classes may be substituted for both world language credits and the art class, according to the Washington State Board of Education.

Spanjer said there will have to be more staff to teach those extra courses, and adding those credits may come at the expense of Advanced Placement and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) courses, which he believes are critical for students preparing for college.

He said adding staff to keep up with more course opportunities would be easier if the state Legislature is able to provide more money for school districts. The state Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 McCleary decision that the state was not providing enough funding for basic education.

“What continues to be frustrating for schools is that these mandates come along without a reasonable enhancement of resources to support them,” Spanjer said.

He said no one is arguing with the intent of the 24-credit adjustment, but he would like to see more money along with it.

Blaine School District estimated less than 60 percent of students who graduated in 2013 and 2014 acquired 24 credits. The district currently requires 22 credits to graduate.

He said Blaine cannot extend the school day longer because the teachers are already working the maximum of 7 1/2 hours a day under their current contract. That could force credit options outside of the regular school day.

“There’s a lot of give and take in this,” Spanjer said.

Ferndale, Meridian, Mount Baker, Nooksack Valley plan other options

Yet not all districts in Whatcom County are as worried about the 24-credit requirement.

Ferndale High School might be in the best position to handle the mandate out of any school in the county, thanks to its 4-by-4 block schedule.

“We’re already poised to be in pretty good shape,” said Scott Brittain, district superintendent of teaching and learning.

Brittain said the block schedule gives kids more options. Students attend four 88-minute classes per day and are required to complete 30 credits, which is manageable when taking eight classes a semester.

But that schedule is more expensive than traditional school days, since teachers spend more of their time planning for the courses, Brittain said. The high school has been using the four-period block schedule for more than 10 years.

Mount Baker School District won’t apply for the waiver, though district Superintendent Charlie Burleigh said the requirement will limit student flexibility.

Nooksack Valley and Meridian School Districts won’t apply for it either, with school officials saying they have the capacity to meet the new standards.

All three of those districts — Mount Baker, Nooksack Valley and Meridian — are on standard six-period days.

For the districts that have applied for the waiver, the extra time doesn’t mean there won’t be adjustments to the course offerings in the near future. Spanjer said Blaine immediately will start looking at incorporating more of the state-required courses.

“We just want to make sure that we’re taking time to make informed decisions, and not reacting to a mandate and finding out in the end that our kids are losing access to many quality programs,” Spanjer said.