Walla Walla Public Schools officials want to see at least 85 percent of its four-year senior students in graduation cap and gowns by 2022.

In the case of fifth-year seniors — students who stay in school an extra year to earn enough credits to graduate — that number goes to 90 percent by that same year, said Chris Gardea, assistant superintendent for the district.

To get there will take some work, particularly at Lincoln High School, officials said last week.

School board members recently learned that 2017’s overall district graduation rate for high school seniors is 75 percent, down from 79 percent in 2016.

Walla Walla High School is closest to the goal, with an 80 percent graduation rate for four-year seniors in 2017 and a 92 percent rate for fifth-year senior for 2016. Fifth-year graduation rates for 2017 are not yet available at the district.

Wa-Hi’s numbers include graduation data from the district’s Opportunity Program, an alternative learning program that targets fifth- and sixth-year seniors, credit-deficient students and those who need a flexible schedule.

Other programs in the district are also struggling to meet target goals, according to information presented at the board meeting.

The Alternative Education Program, known as AEP, has a four-year graduation rate of 23 percent, and that gets factored into Wa-Hi’s rate, Gardea said.

AEP, based at and facilitated by Walla Walla Community College, serves a population of teens and young adults from around the greater Walla Walla Valley. This year, just 30 of the 111 AEP students are from Walla Walla.

Overall, few students enrolled in AEP are on a four-year or even a five-year path to graduation, Gardea pointed out.

The program started in the 1980s as a safety net for students who have already dropped out or are about to, or need a different environment than a traditional classroom setting, he said. And despite drawing from several area school districts, the numbers get put under the WWPS banner by the state.

District officials are happy AEP — which serves ages 16 to 21 — is getting some of its students to the finish line, no matter how long it takes or where the student originated from, Gardea said.

However, Lincoln High School’s 2017 graduation rate is of bigger concern, he said.

The school on South Fourth Avenue has a special niche in the Walla Walla school district. The school is renowned for its use of resilience- and trauma-informed teaching and counseling methods. Many kids land at Lincoln shouldering a burden of poverty, unstable housing, family problems and prior academic failures.

Still, the school reached a 76 percent graduation rate of fourth-year seniors in 2014, and 75 percent of its fifth-year seniors graduated in 2016.

Since that high point in 2014, however, the graduation rate for four-year seniors has plunged — just 44 percent of them got a diploma from Lincoln in 2017.

Principal Marci Knauft said she and her staff are not sure what’s happened.

“We don’t feel like we are doing anything different,” she said. “We feel like our trauma-informed practices are nothing but strong; our supports are getting stronger.”

A recent survey of students, staff and parents echoed the same, she said Thursday, particularly in the area of student support.

“The parents scored us very high,” she said.

Lincoln staff can’t control what challenges students show up with, however. Other than freshman, which Knauft said is a growing Lincoln demographic, about 75 percent enroll with significantly fewer credits than they need to be on track for on-time graduation.

Some attend while working and some while trying to raise young children.

As well, Lincoln’s student body can be transient in nature. While this year’s rolls reflect an average census of 180 full-time students, that number bounces around as kids come in and out of the district, Knauft pointed out.

“Even though we are doing our absolute best, they might be moving from grandma’s back to mom’s house,” she said. “We find them, and we pull them back here.”

And there are the students who end up in Juvenile Justice Center, drug or mental-health treatment, she said.

Of the school’s current population, 16 will graduate as fifth-year seniors this year. Washington is beginning to recognize the value in measuring a sixth-year graduation rate, as well, the principal said.

The nature of Lincoln also means the school has a special-needs student population sometimes as high as 35 percent. Federal law allows those students to stay in school until age 21.

“Those kids go against our on-time graduation rate, but it’s the right thing to do to have them here,” Knauft said.

Recently one young man living in the South who had eight high school credits heard about Lincoln’s success with students like himself, she said.

“He sold everything he owned and got on the bus and came to Walla Walla so he could go to Lincoln. I am sure as heck not going to turn him away.”

Knauft said she and her staff are looking at “concrete” barriers to stop Lincoln’s downward graduation trajectory.

“We are restructuring our schedule for next year, restructuring our day to ensure every student enrolled is in a seven-period day,” she said. “We’re going to have credit-retrieval periods built in. We’re doing very intense summer school for students who have failed courses.”

Teachers are conferencing with students weekly and sharing that information with others in the building. Knauft has created a color-coded student chart for tracking each Lincoln kid.

As well, Lincoln’s staff is considering better ways to measure proficiency, meaning a student may not need to repeat an entire semester of a class but backfill what’s missing, she added.

“Our goal is to increase the percentage of kids who are back to where they need to be … to get them across that stage,” she said.

Derek Sarley, president of the Walla Walla school board, said he understands the challenges Lincoln High School faces in the students being served and applauds the support in place to meet those social and emotional needs.

Nonetheless, his board is “very concerned about these numbers” and is committed to figuring out why graduation rates have slid so far down, he said.

“Our commitment is to producing Washington’s most sought-after graduates, and a key part of that is actually graduating,” Sarley said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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