Ninth-graders were off to an unprecedented start at Sultan High School this year.

They were the first incoming cohorts with access to a new system of supports. Principal Tami Nesting said new policies were implemented this fall to address the link between a productive first year and successful secondary education.

“We are changing our entire world to be about the needs of students,” she said.

Only “a small minority of the students who do not make it through ninth grade successfully will complete high school on time,” according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The federal agency reports the gap between the value of a high school diploma and a postsecondary continues to grow.

This year an extra period was added to the daily schedule for staff and students. Each class is seven minutes shorter than in years past. Nesting said it gives students more opportunities to take classes they are interested in and for making up low grades in the future.

The change was partly a response to new graduation requirements adopted by the state, according to Nesting. The class of 2019 and beyond must complete 24 credits, instead of the current 22.

The Sultan School District secured a waiver, along with many other school districts around the state, so the change will not take place until 2021, she said.

Nesting said she has received pushback from teachers due to the new schedule. Some were concerned about the increased workload. She said she hopes in time the new system will prove fruitful.

The education study states a large factor in the success of ninth-graders has to do with feeling a sense of belonging and comfort in their new school, in addition to the structures and strategies in place to address their academic needs. Higher attendance and passing courses correlates to strong relationships between students and their teachers. 

Nesting said for the first time all educators teach a class of ninth-graders each semester. School counselor Jenny Peterson will meet with half of the freshmen population this year, while her colleague meets with the other.

“It narrowed our focus for professional development. The needs of freshman are very different from the needs of seniors,” Nesting wrote in an email. “...It brought all staff wisdom into the planning and analysis—Veteran staff as well as new teachers all brought different points of view to the conversation.”

Peterson said she is there to help guide kids through the complexities of academic requirements and set them up with other supports they may need that contribute to their experience. With the increased freedom in high school comes more expectations, said Morgan Huber, who fills the newly created student support advocate position.

She assists sixth- through 12th-graders who have needs that tend to fall outside the scope of school district staff duties. She works with students who might have low attendance, deal with substance abuse or are homeless.

Youth that age are going through major changes, Huber said. Their teachers are giving them more responsibilities, while at the same time their parents may be pulling back at home to give them space to grow, Nesting said.

“The convergence of students’ individual developmental changes with the dramatic differences in the organizational context and intellectual demands between middle school and high school is potentially challenging for all students,” according to the department of education study.

Huber is one resource for addressing factors outside of school that influence successes in the classroom. She said all the work is to make it so they can function in the world after high school. Her role is to eliminate some of the barriers that keep kids from performing their best.

Nesting said another new intervention is the addition of after-school tutoring options. Kids are not only fed breakfast and lunch, but meals once the final bell rings, so they can stay after and study. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has closely tied proper nutrition with success in school.

Abby Owens, Logan Grubb and Jose Alonso take the high school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination class together. Often students in those courses are the first in their family to attend college, according to the national AVID organization.

The three ninth-graders said they started AVID in sixth grade. The classes focus on learning skills for whatever career a student may chose, whether it’s being a mechanic or going to college. Owens said she applied to the program because she wants to be prepared for her future.

She said high school has turned out to be different than middle school in some ways. Before she transitioned she was able to give less than her full effort to make good grades. Now there is more motivation to try harder and do better. Staff seems to want the students to do well, she said.

Grubb said the after school tutoring has helped her immensely. Transportation is provided once the designated study time is over. She said her grades have gone up two letters in some cases.

Nesting said by this time last year there were about 150 students with a failing grade. While there are chances to recover from low performance, the experience can feel defeating, she said.

“It takes away that hope,” she said.

After one semester of implementing the policy to focus on freshmen, the numbers have been reduced to one-third of their historic average, Nesting said. She said she was expecting results, but not that quickly.