Clark County’s largest districts — Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground — trace the state averages. Evergreen Public Schools had the lowest freshman failure rate with 21.3 percent in 2016, while Vancouver had the highest rate at 25.5 percent of students.
Those failure rates, as with so many indicators of student performance, tend to disproportionately affect students of color and students in poverty. At the state level, for example, 34.8 percent of low-income freshmen failed a class compared with their non-low-income peers, 12.3 percent of whom failed a class.
“It’s the underlying risk factors,” Grunenfelder said. “Lack of engagement, lack of resources, high mobility — you’ve got attendance issues. All those things that impact graduation.”
There’s some good news, however. Freshman failure rates are on the decline statewide, while local districts are either declining or staying flat. Area districts credit increasing efforts to provide students with academic as well as emotional support as they make the transition into high school.
“We try to hire staff members who understand that at the freshman year, kids screw up,” said Travis Drake, Prairie High School principal. “And it’s our job to support them through that.”
An English teacher, a physics teacher and an elective teacher walk into a classroom.
It sounds like the setup of a joke, but it’s part of the way Evergreen High School is working to keep freshmen engaged their first year of school.
The freshman academy is one of several programs launched in recent years by area school districts to offer incoming freshmen who may have struggled in middle school extra academic and social support through their first year of high school.
At Evergreen, students in the freshman academy are placed into two-period blocks, but they can earn three credits — a science credit, an English credit and an elective credit teaching students how to set themselves up for college.
The hope, according to Bill Oman, executive director of secondary education for the district, is that students will develop relationships with their teachers and feel they have someone who will support them when they’re struggling, while keeping students on track academically.
“It’s different types of interventions to be proactive,” he said.
School districts elsewhere have started programs to aid freshmen.
Battle Ground Public Schools, for example, launched transition classes for freshman at its comprehensive high schools. At Battle Ground and Prairie high schools, students who struggled in eighth grade can enroll in programs that group them together with other students to stay on top of core classes.
“Basically he just supports them in maintaining,” he said.
The state recommends school districts take a multi-pronged approach like these classes to helping new freshmen succeed, based not only on students’ academic progress, but also whether they feel safe and welcome at school.
“That transitional support, building that relationship is critical,” Grunenfelder said.