How to increase the graduation rate in our school district

B   Behind every thought is an emotion. Behind every action is a motivation.  -        Vygotsky, Thought and Language, 1986

In this article, I want to explain how I will raise the graduation rate in our school district if I am elected to the school board. As I will show below, our school district suffers from the highest real dropout rate of any school district of the six school districts on the Eastside of Lake Washington (these school districts include Snoqualmie Valley, Bellevue, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Riverview and Tahoma). Out of every 9th Grade class of 440 students in our school district, only 330 graduate four years later. This is a real dropout rate of 25%. The average for all other Eastside school districts is about 10%. So our dropout rate is more than twice the average of neighboring school districts. My goal is to reduce the dropout rate so that we move from the highest dropout rate to the lowest dropout rate.

Why does our school district have such a high dropout rate?

Before we can reduce this dropout rate, we need to better understand what is causing it. This requires a better understanding of child development and how children make decisions. I have spent many years studying this question. In fact, when I got my Master’s Degree in Child Development at the University of Washington, I specialized in the social and emotional development of children. I took every graduate level course offered in both the Education Department and the Psychology Department that was related to a child’s emotional and social development. I even took a course on the emotional development of infants offered by the Nursing Program. I was the only male out of one hundred students in that course.

What I learned from all of these courses is that children are complex and how they make decisions is different from adults in very important ways. In terms of brain development, their brains are different from adults in very important ways. We have learned through brain imaging that we have several different brains and that these brains require stimulation in order to grow.

Above is a simplified image of the human brain taken from Wikipedia.org. The blue area can be thought of as the cognitive area of the brain. It includes the prefrontal cortex which is the last area of the human brain to develop. It is the cognitive or thinking brain. Preceding and underlying this is the social brain. Preceding and underlying this is the emotional brain which is also called the limbic system. Preceding and underlying this is the physical brain which controls motor and muscle functioning.

It is actually much more complex than this. But the following is a useful model for understanding how a student makes a decision to drop out of school.

For example, if a child’s physical needs for exercise and sleep are not being met, the child might not do as well in school. This can lead to an emotional feeling of failure as children tend to blame themselves for not succeeding in school and for failing tests. This sense of low self-esteem might lead them to socially withdraw from their more successful peers. This social withdrawal then reduces their cognitive development and increases the chances that they will eventually drop out of school.

We as a community tend to only see the final act – where the child is no longer in school. But dropping out of school is not a single act. Rather it is a process of events. We need to better understand this process of events if we are to prevent the final act.

Put another way, if we are to promote cognitive development or thinking and learning, we also need to promote the social development of children and the emotional development of children and the physical well-being of children. This is the “whole child” approach to child development.

Put another way, what happens to a child in elementary school and middle school will greatly affect whether they decide to drop out of high school. The way to improve graduation rates in our school district requires not only improving our high school, but also improving our middle schools and elementary schools.

In particular, there needs to be a greater emphasis on the physical, emotional and social development of children – especially children who are struggling in elementary school. We need to not only help them with their cognitive development, but also help them with their physical development, emotional development and social development.

Sadly, too often, in an effort to help struggling students with their cognitive development, we actually harm their emotional and social development. For example, we may drill Second Graders to death in order to improve their scores on high stakes tests they must take in the Third Grade. The scores may go up on the test. But the cure may eventually kill the patient in terms of poorer attitudes towards learning. This is crucial because attitudes towards self and learning in early grades predict dropping out of school in later grades. When we pay closer attention to the emotional and social development of children in elementary school and middle school, we will see better results in the cognitive development of children in high school.

I have written a 100 page paper on this subject which is available for download on my website, springforschools.org. But most parents and teachers already understand the need to pay attention to the whole child and not just their test scores. So rather than boring you further with the research, I will next compare the dropout rate in our school district to neighboring school districts. I will then review how this whole child approach can be better implemented in our school district.

Comparing the Dropout Rate in our School District to neighboring school districts

Previously, I have noted that out of an average 9th Grade class of 440 students in our school district, only 330 actually graduate. Below is the actual distribution for the past three years:

 A similar Grade Cohort analysis of other neighboring East King County school districts shows cohort graduation rates of about 90%.

A Grade Cohort graduation rate in our school district of 75% implies a dropout rate of 25%. But this is not actually the case. According to the 2011-2012 Graduation Rates in Washington State Appendix F District Adjusted 5 year rate http://www.k12.wa.us/dataadmin/

The 5 Year adjusted “reported” graduation rate of the Snoqualmie Valley School District is 83%. This compared to the other East King County School Districts which have a reported graduation rate of 93%.

We will show below how our school district administrators misreported the number of 9th Graders in 2008 to hide the fact that the actual graduation rate is only 75%. But what is important to understand is that this is not a problem of one year or one grade. It is a chronic long- term problem that past school boards have failed to even acknowledge much less deal with.

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to improve the graduation rate. I cover just a few of them below.

Nine Steps to improve the Graduation Rate in our school district

Below are nine steps we can take which have been shown by child development research to improve the graduation rate over time:

#1: Reopen Snoqualmie Middle School

 There is no better example of our current board’s placing the needs of our high school students over the needs of our middle school students than the recent 3 to 2 decision to annex Snoqualmie Middle School. This is probably one of the worst decisions that has ever been made by any school board.

It can be debated whether it will help our harm our 9th Graders. What is certain is that it will harm more than one thousand middle school students who will be forced to attend the two remaining and severely over-crowded middle schools.

Those most harmed are the middle school children from Snoqualmie Ridge. Not only will they have to attend a severely over-crowded middle school in a community far from their home, but they will have to sit on buses for twice as long as they used to and they will have lost the sense of community that they enjoyed at Snoqualmie Middle School. Sitting on buses harms their physical development, losing their middle school harms their emotional development and attending over-crowded schools harms their social development. All of these stressors will harm their cognitive development.

Meanwhile, there is more harm than good in isolating 9th Graders at a 9th Grade Only campus. They will no longer have access to educational opportunities found only at the main high school. The combination of these two factors is likely to increase the dropout rate in our school district for years to come. The way to minimize the damage is to reopen Snoqualmie Middle School as soon as possible.

#2: Build a second elementary school at Deer Park on Snoqualmie Ridge

All five of our existing elementary schools are extremely overcrowded. This chronic stress harms the physical, emotional and social development of all of our elementary school children. In addition, nearly 500 elementary school children from Snoqualmie Ridge are already being bused to schools far from their homes – and have been bused for the past several years. If we want these children to do well in middle school and high school, then we must to a better job of providing for their emotional and social well-being in elementary school.

Building another elementary school will reduce overcrowding at all of our elementary schools and therefore improve attitudes towards school and learning in middle school which will increase graduation rates in high school. I propose that this elementary school be put on the ballot and separate from all other issues in spring 2014 with the goal of having the elementary school built and opened by the fall of 2015.

#3: Return to a 4 year high school model rather than a 3 year high school model

 The current school board plan of isolating 9th Graders not only harms our middle school students and our 9th Graders, it also harms struggling 10th Graders. Four year high schools not only help those going to college but also those who are struggling and at risk. Specifically struggling 9th Graders who fail a math class or other class have an easier opportunity to repeat that class in the 10th Grade when 9th Grade classes are offered on the main campus. This is one of the primary reasons why high schools all across our State and all across America have moved away from a three year high school model and are now using a four year high school model.

 #4: Reduce the Grade Cohort Size of Mount Si High School

While highly capable students do well regardless of the size of the high school, struggling students do much better in smaller schools than in larger schools. This is because they are able to form stronger relationships and feel more like part of the community in a smaller school. In a large school, struggling students are more likely to fall through the cracks and feel alienated and isolated.

This is why the average size high school in Washington State and in the US is 900 students. It is because this is a Grade Cohort of just over 200 students. Child development research indicates that the ideal high school grade cohort size is 150 to 200 students. As the cohort size rises above 300 students, all kinds of social and emotional stress related problems begin to emerge. These include drug abuse, school violence, crimes, and school dropouts.

Mount Si High School is currently at about 1600 students – which is a Grade Cohort size of 400 students. This is twice the recommended size for a high school and much larger than the State and national average. Reducing the Grade Cohort size will help increase social engagement, reduce violence, reduce dropouts and therefore increase our graduation rate.

Yet our current school board is actually proposing to go in exactly the oppose direction. They have proposed a $120 million remodel of Mount Si High School which will increase the capacity of the high school to 2,400 students – making it one of the largest Mega High Schools in our State. This is an extremely bad idea. The grade cohort would be raised to 600 students – three times the maximum recommended size and nearly three times the State and national average.

High Schools in the Lake Washington School District are closer in size to the State and National average

Compare this plan to the size of high schools in the Lake Washington School District. The Lake Washington School District, which is about four times larger than our school district has four traditional high schools and two “choice” high schools:

Redmond High School... 1,500 students

Lake Washington High School... 1,000 students

Juanita High School... 1,100 students

Eastlake High School... 1,300 students

STEM High School... 600 students “choice school” assigned by lottery

International School... 500 students “choice school” assigned by lottery

The average size of Lake Washington School District High Schools is 1,000 students. This is only 100 students more than the Washington State and national average of 900 students. Not surprisingly, the high schools with the highest graduation rates are the ones with the lowest student enrollment.

The way to reduce the grade cohort size in our school district is to create a 500 to 600 student “choice” high school in either North Bend or Fall City in the next few years.

This can be done for less than $30 million and perhaps even less than $10 million. I cover this plan in greater detail in the article on improving our high school. This will benefit both the students who attend the choice school and also the students at Mount Si High School by reducing the Grade Cohorts at both schools.

#5: Increase student engagement in middle school and high school by providing every student with a combination laptop and tablet that will be theirs to keep for the remainder of their education.

One of the most important ways to keep struggling students in school is to increase their engagement with their course work. Research has shown that one of the best ways to increase student engagement is to give them their own laptop and internet access and allow them to bring the laptop to school and conduct their research on their own laptop. Engagement in turn keeps struggling students in school and increases the graduation rate. This is the primary reason the Lake Washington School District has chosen to give every middle school and high school student their own $500 laptop.

I have proposed that we give our middle school and high school students an even better $700 laptop which has a better battery system and converts from a laptop to a tablet. I am confident this will not only help teach our students how to use technology, but it will also help increase engagement and test scores and increase our graduation rate. This proposal is covered in my article called “Earn your own Laptop Program.”

#6: Reduce class sizes by reducing the number of administrators and increasing the number of teachers

Research has consistently shown a strong relationship between lower class sizes and increased student engagement and graduation rates. Sadly, our school district suffers from some of the highest class sizes in Washington State and in the nation. One reason our kids are forced to endure high class sizes is that the Snoqualmie Valley School District spends much more on Central Administration and Operations than comparable school districts. Numerous independent studies have concluded that our school district has one of the highest rates of administrators of any school district in East King County. For example, OSPI data shows that our school district spends about 60% of the budget on teachers while neighboring school districts such as Issaquah and Bellevue spend 62% to 64%.

On June 11, 2012, the State Auditor’s office released a review of spending patterns of all 295 school districts in our State. These school districts were grouped into “peer groups” with other school districts of similar size. The Snoqualmie Valley School District is in Peer Group #29 along with neighboring Tahoma School District. On page 74 of this report is the percentage comparison chart shown below:

Source: State Auditor Office Performance Audit K-12 Education Spending June 6, 2012

Note that our school district spends 2.2% less than comparable school districts on Teaching Instruction. 2.2% of a $55 million budget comes to $1.1 million dollars – enough to pay for 20 more teachers! The reason for this is that our school district spends 0.7% more on central administration and 1.2% more on Operations and Maintenance.

But it is worse than this because some of the money which our administrators classify as “teaching” does not actually goes into hiring teachers. Instead, it goes to administrators who do not actually have a classroom or teach students. Using the normal definition of teachers as someone with a classroom and students, the real shortfall which is not spent on teachers rises to about 4.2% or about $2.6 million.

This could pay for up to 30 more teachers. Shockingly, in the past few years, our administration – with the support and approval of our school board – has eliminated 20 teaching positions. All of this money has simply been moved into more administrators.

For example, in just the past few years, Central Administration costs have grown by nearly one million dollars (from $2 million to $3 million). “Teacher Support” has also grown by $1.6 million (from $4 million to $5.6 million). We should put this entire $2.6 million back where it belongs – back into the classroom – by hiring 30 more classroom teachers! Hiring 30 more teachers will allow us to reduce class sizes in every classroom in our school district by about 10%.

 I will reduce the number of administrators in our school district down to the regional average and down to our “auditor peer group” average so that we can increase the number of teachers in our school district up to the regional average and up to the auditor peer group average. I will also make sure that those in our school district who are classified as “teachers” have an actual classroom and actual students.

One of the duties of a school board is to make sure that the administration is actually spending the money on our kids. According to data from OSPI and the State Auditor, our current school board has failed to do this. Adding 30 more teachers to our schools will lower class sizes by 10% or by about 3 students per class. Lowering class sizes will make a huge difference to all of our students and especially to students who are struggling and at risk of dropping out of school.

 #7: Set a maximum class size of 30 students

It is unfair to our students and teachers and unsafe to have math courses with 45 students and PE courses with 90 students in them. The maximum class size any student or teacher should be subjected to is 30 students. I will therefore propose a maximum class sizes for all of our schools of 30 students per class. As teachers typically have 5 periods, this means no more than 150 students per teacher per day.

#8: Form a committee to reduce bullying in our school district

 Above I showed that the Grade Cohort graduation rate in our school district is 75%. This implies a dropout rate of 25%. But this is not actually the case. According to the 2011-2012 Graduation Rates in Washington State Appendix F District Adjusted 5 year rate http://www.k12.wa.us/dataadmin/

The 5 Year adjusted “reported” graduation rate of the Snoqualmie Valley School District is 83%. This compares to the other East King County School Districts which have a reported graduation rate of 93%. But the actual difference is much greater because the Snoqualmie Valley School District greatly under-reported the actual number of 9th Graders that were registered in our school district in October 2008 (as is more accurately shown on Report 1049).

The following table shows the graduation rates using the reported number of 9th Graders compared to the graduation rate based on the actual number of 9th Graders for East King County School Districts:

Some other schools districts slightly under-reported their 9th Graders. But none of them under-reported to the extent of the Snoqualmie Valley School District. After inserting the actual 9th Graders, the graduation rate in the Snoqualmie School District, the average graduation rate for the other East King County school districts fell to 90%. But for the Snoqualmie Valley School District, the graduation rate fell to 77%.

Sadly, the real graduation rate in our school district is even worse than that. While many 9th and 10th Graders drop out, many others simply transfer to another school district. Statewide the number of 9th Graders transferring into a school district is about the same as the number transferring out. But in our school district, we had 115 students transfer in and 133 transferring out. . We need to ask ourselves why 18 more students left our school district after the 9th Grade than entered our school district.

The OSPI method is strange in that it rewards school districts for driving away students by counting those students as if they had graduated. In fact, I am familiar with many kids who have left the school district. In some of these cases, the student committed suicide after the district failed to help them, others moved away after having been assaulted. Others moved away after having been threatened. Others moved to better school districts. Even two school board members pulled their kids out of our school district and put them in other school districts. The fact that more students leave our school district than enter our school district should not be ignored. If these 18 kids are properly counted as failures of our school district, and added to the dropout rate, then the real graduation rate becomes 75% and the real dropout rate is 25% - more than twice as high as any neighboring East King County School District.

There is additional evidence to support my contention that we have a bullying problem in our school district. In going door to door talking to hundreds if not thousands of parents in our school district during these past few years, many of them have told me about incidents where there children were exposed to bullying. In addition, in annual reports of the Washington State Education Ombudsman, the Snoqualmie Valley School District has had a higher percentage of complaints filed against it than any other school district in our State except the Seattle School District.

We therefore have to admit that there is a bullying problem in our school district and do something about it so that all children can feel safe every day that they are at school and while they are riding the buses to and from school. I think that some of this bullying problem is the result of classes being too crowded and schools being over-crowded and buses being over-crowded. But also there appears to be an atmosphere of denial in our school district where some administrators simply try to cover up the fact that there is a bullying problem. When we start to address the bullying problem and start holding the bully accountable rather than driving the victims out of our school district, then we will have a safer school district and we will have a higher graduation rate.

 #9: Change the way school board decisions are made by changing the way school board meetings are run

The primary reason why problems are rarely solved in our school district is that they are typically never even acknowledged, much less discussed at School Board meetings. Instead, the entire time of these meetings are spent in a Prep Rally of administrators congratulating each other for the great job they are doing while school board members look on passively.

It is okay to spend half of the meeting discussing what is great about our school district. But we also need to spend half of the meeting admitting what is wrong and discussing what needs to be improved. After admitting problems, we need to do some actual research into the underlying causes of these problems and at the very least gather accurate information about the extent of the problems. We then need to put all possible options on the table and fairly discuss their advantages and drawbacks of each. Too often, our school board accepts what administrators tell them and fail to verify the facts. They then make decisions without considering viable alternatives. This poor decision making leads to failed school bonds and problems getting worse instead of better.

The decision to annex Snoqualmie Middle School is a good example of the poor decision making process of the current school board. In 2009, they were told that our high school population would skyrocket by 800 students to over 2300 students by 2013. No one, other than a few of us parents questioned this claim. It turned out that this claim was completely wrong. But even when it was proven to be wrong and that high school student enrollment only rose by 100 students and not exceed the capacity of Mount Si High School, the school board insisted on moving ahead with annexation. To rationalize their decision, they shifted the reason for annexation from capacity to “quality of instruction.” Again, they failed to do basic research which clearly shows that quality of instruction at an isolated 9th Grade campus will be worse than at a normal high school.

When it came time to explain their reasoning, one school board member stated that the reason she wanted the 9th Graders isolated was because her own daughter had a bad experience at Mount Si High School. So thousands of children are being harmed and hundreds are being moved to schools far from their homes simply because one student had a problem adjusting to Mount Si High School!

Another school board member who voted for annexation admitted that there was not a capacity problem or a quality of instruction problem. But there was a need to remodel the high school so the 9th Graders would have to go in order to make this happen. To protect his daughter from the chaos, he pulled her out of the school district. So she will not have to bear the consequences of his vote. But thousands of other children do not have the option of leaving the school district. They will bear the harm.

A third school board member said that the fact that high school enrollment was 600 students less than they thought it would be is irrelevant. They made a decision two years earlier and that there was “no going back.” Despite two bond failures and despite two school board members being voted off the school board for supporting annexation, and being replaced with two new school board members who opposed annexation, he would still vote for annexing Snoqualmie Middle School.

This is no way to make decisions affecting the future of 6,000 children. If elected, I will urge a much more open and balanced approach to decision making at future school board meetings. I will not harm thousands of elementary school and middle school children just to create 20 empty classrooms at Mount Si High School.



There are many things we can do to increase the graduation rate in our school district. Unfortunately, the current school board is not doing any of them. Instead, it has taken steps which are likely to make the dropout problem even worse. If you agree that something should be done to change the fact that we have the lowest graduation rate of any East King County school district, I hope you will join our campaign for change by emailing and calling your friends and neighbors and encouraging them to vote for change in the upcoming election. If you have any questions or suggestions about improving the graduation rate in our school district, feel free to email me or post a question on our forum which is on our website: springforschools.org


David Spring M. Ed.

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