Perhaps nothing would have changed — Walla Walla High School would still be 4A, classified with the state’s biggest schools as it always has been for more than a century, and/or DeSales Catholic would remain 2B — if not for two somewhat controversial new state policies adopted only a year ago by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
One amendment established specific enrollment numbers to determine each of the six classifications. No longer would they fluctuate just so that the classes were of equal size.
The other amendment factored the percentage of kids receiving free and reduced cost lunches into the reported student enrollment at each school, a socioeconomic measure with the idea of competitive balance.
Neither new policy directly impacted Wa-Hi or DeSales, but both were pivotal in the latest restructuring of the WIAA, approved in January, with the Blue Devils going from Class 4A down to 3A, and likewise the Irish from 2B to 1B.
The “drops” might seem shocking from a historical perspective here, but of the 10 schools around the state reported by the WIAA to have appealed their new classifications, neither Wa-Hi or DeSales is among them.
“With the leadership of the (Walla Walla Public Schools) district office, we decided to play in the classification where we landed because it’s really only fair to our kids,” Wa-Hi athletic director Dirk Hansen said. “It’s better for them to see the other team we’re playing having the same number of kids we have.”
Meanwhile, DeSales had already been leaning toward 1B, and simply chose not to “opt up” as it had in the previous classifications for 2016-20.
Wa-Hi might continue to be 4A if not for the amendment regarding fixed enrollments, which may very well have nudged the Blue Devils down to 3A in reshaping the WIAA as a whole.
Before “hard numbers,” the classifications were of roughly the same size, each with about 64 schools (give or take), and the actual enrollment figures bobbed so long as the classes remained somewhat equal in number.
For example, 2016-20 had Class 4A with the 64 largest schools, smaller ones progressing down the list (for the most part, as schools still could “opt up”). Class 3A included the next 66, 2A and 1A each had 65, 2B had 60, and 1B had 64.
Wa-Hi, having historically always competed among the state’s giants, was still 4A as of this past school year, but its reported average student population at the time was 1,365 (the WIAA only counts grades 9-11) and ranked just four spots up from 3A.
When the WIAA drew up new classifications for 2020-24, with all Class 4A schools now needing to have at least 1,300 students, Wa-Hi wound up missing the cut by only 35 kids with 1,265 — and that was before even factoring in free and reduced cost lunches.
Consider also that though enrollment at Wa-Hi may have dipped a little, at the same time, hard numbers left 4A with only 51 schools — 13 fewer than in the last cycle.
Had the classifications continued to maintain equal size, with 4A needing the next 13 largest schools, maybe Wa-Hi might very well have stayed among the giants.
But Wa-Hi chose not to appeal.
“We could have, but our whole philosophy is to play where our numbers fit,” Hansen remarked. “Sure we could opt up to play 4A, and you might think with fewer schools you have a better chance in the (state) playoffs, but we’re looking at it from the kids’ perspective.”
Meanwhile, though DeSales had already been leaning toward going from 2B to 1B, athletic director Nick Hazeltine admits the amendment regarding lunches did end up having a “minor” role.
In a statewide effort for competitive balance, the lunch policy intends to help schools in low-income areas get more kids to participate — the idea being that if they were up against slightly smaller opponents in contests that were more “winnable,” perhaps more kids would play.
What happens is a school with a percentage of its student body on free and reduced cost lunches exceeding the state average could lower its reported enrollment, maybe enough to qualify for a lower classification.
As of now, WIAA reports the average school has 47 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches.
A school above that can lower its enrollment number by an equal percentage. For example, a school with 50 percent of its students on free and reduced cost lunches could cut its reported population by three percent.
Eighteen schools have made such a drop in the 2020-24 classifications, according to the WIAA, and a third of them went from 1A to 2B, DeSales’ previous class.
Hazeltine mentioned such repercussions of the lunch amendment as he explained several different ways 1B had become more ideal classification for DeSales.
“Now, 2B will have some even bigger schools from 1A, so really, sizewise, the schools in IB are a little more comparable to us,” Hazeltine said. “We match up better in 1B.”
The Irish weren’t alone as 1B is now the state’s biggest class with 87 schools.
Primarily, however, the drop to 1B after years of opting up despite tiny enrollments cut the DeSales travel budget and returned the Irish to playing schools they have long known here in the southeast District 9.