I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education in the valley. I’ve progressed to a point of regularly attending school board meetings; something I never thought I’d do amidst the chaos of raising 4 kids. Somehow I find myself here – one of “those moms” as some lovingly refer to us.
For the record, it wasn’t intentional. I don’t see myself as a School Board Member. I’ve never even been a PTA Board Member. When it comes down to it, I believe I am just a mom; a mom who wants this school district to keep moving forward, challenging itself, setting goals to provide kids the rigor that will propel them onto successful futures. Most research states that from an early age children rise to meet expectations. I like to believe this.
For the first time since I’ve called Snoqualmie Valley home, our school district is talking about progressive change at the high school level. That change would come in the form of a separate 9th grade campus. Our new principal says freshman are different from 10th – 12th graders, having unique development needs. I’ve heard multiple presentations stating how we need to meet this unique need and help 9th graders succeed. I’ve heard warnings that if at-risk 9th graders don’t have a successful freshman year, we may lose them later in their high school careers to the drop-out phenomenon plaguing our nation. Our new principal is openly talking about the Mount Si High School dropout rate – roughly 12%.
I understand what our district is saying. I commend them for wanting some type of rapid reformation to solve the high school’s dropout problem and boost education. Yet, I continue wondering if a separate 9th grade campus (something only one other state school district has) is a broad enough solution. Experts agree that although a small percentage of well-performing middle school students will develop academic problems during their first year in high school, many at-risk 9th graders show signs of needing academic intervention well before high school. I recently read an article in which one education expert compared the high school dropout problem to a company’s failure during its final year of business. It’s too simplistic. Sometimes you have to look at the prior years to see when problems started surfacing. If those problems are detected earlier, they can often be solved before the company fails.
So I keep wondering, is a separate 9th grade campus the only strategy needed to curb the MSHS dropout rate and boost education? If a separate 9th grade campus means limiting foreign language opportunities for 9th graders how can this be true? Many colleges now require 3 years of foreign language. Schools and advisors say to be in the competitive college applicant pool students should take 4 years of foreign language. In an ever-increasing global economy, should we not as a district encourage students to become conversation proficient? It usually takes 4-5 years of foreign language study to achieve this goal. What if honors and regular classes are forced to combine on a 9th grade campus? What happens to honors students, many whom require a different learning pace to progress? Are they slowed down?
What if the solution lies with reassessing our Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s solution adopted 2 years ago? That committee’s study ranked a MSHS expansion 24% higher than the SMS annexation under its decision making criteria. What if we go back to that MSHS expansion solution and extrapolate just the portions now needed to meet our reduced capacity needs? Two years ago the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee thought we would need a high school expansion that added space for 800-900 students. That need has since decreased to approximately 550 students. Based on the committee’s report, an expansion adding a second floor to one MSHS wing would provide the needed capacity to incorporate a Freshman Learning Center on campus, at a cost roughly $20 million less than building a new middle school to transition Snoqualmie Middle School to a separate FLC.
Most 9th grade campus feasibility studies show they work best when located on site of the high school they serve – or much closer than the half mile distance (door to door) of MSHS and SMS. The closer proximity allows freshman to remain separated, yet still an integral part of their high school. Keeping MSHS freshman on campus but in their own area also applies the same successful education strategy our middle schools currently use – different grade levels in different school wings. The building design of CKMS and TFMS exemplify this practice. SMS works the same way, even in a less than desirable building design.
Should we close a high-performing middle school and make it a 9th grade campus if that school is preparing students better than ever to succeed in high school AND there is no school to replace it yet? Since SVSD moved to three middle schools, away from 2 over-crowed schools, test scores have risen. Additionally, last year the number of 9th grade F’s dramatically decreased by half at MSHS. Some say these statistics show our three middle schools are preparing 9th graders for high school success. If students perform well freshman year, studies show they are more likely to stay in school and graduate.
Ask yourself Snoqualmie Valley, is a separate 9th grade campus the only solution? Or could it be part of a broader one that focuses on interventions throughout the entire K-12 system? One that starts in the early education years and then progresses during middle school. If students enter 9th grade better than ever prepared to learn and succeed, do they need a separate school? Or do they need a little of both? Better prepared with a little separation, yet integrated into Mount Si High School. Maybe we can combine the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee’s top two solutions, compromise with voters and make it work in a way best for all SVSD students.