KENNEWICK — Tony Aburto knew the names as they were read over the intercom.
Working concessions at the Toyota Center, Aburto heard his friends and fellow classmates at Kennewick High School called up, one after another, to receive their diploma.
He knew he should be among them, among the class of 2022. But he wasn’t.
“I heard everyone’s names being called. That sucked,” he recalled.
Aburto is among the 15% of high school seniors around the country who don’t graduate on time.
For Aburto, 18, it wasn’t just because he failed classes. The COVID pandemic closed in-person classrooms his sophomore year. Then, his junior year, he found some rhythm, though his grades continued to slip.
Then, he skipped most of his classes senior year. He still thought he was catching up, but in the weeks leading to graduation he found out he was just a couple credits shy of graduating with the Class of 2022.
“The thought of going to school my entire life and not graduating, that hit a spot,” he said. “I thought, ‘I need to work harder if I want to graduate.’”
A fifth-year senior at Kennewick High School, Aburto will graduate this month with his high school diploma. He hasn’t skipped a single day of class since fall courses started back up again.
And he credits his success to Kennewick’s counselors, graduation success coordinators and the high school’s Success Hub.
“Our message all the time is do not give up,” said Robyn Davis, a success coordinator who’s worked at Kennewick High the past 12 years. “He’s an example of a kid who, when you give him time to mature, can thrive in the high school environment.”
On any given day, hundreds of Kennewick students are at risk of falling off-track to graduate, but it’s workers like Davis who catch them before they slip through the cracks.
It’s her job to engage those students and families on a daily and weekly basis, to ensure they see a cap and gown and diploma at the end of four years.
But Davis’ crucial work is also largely paid for by local tax dollars, which are at risk of being pulled if Kennewick School District voters don’t pass February’s levy measure.
‘Mom on campus’
“I think, for a lack of other ways to describe it, I’m kind of a mom on campus,” Davis said.
She works exclusively with seniors. On this particular day, Davis has a caseload of 49 students she plans to touch base with.
She regularly monitors the progress of about 354 students, and says about 80 of them recently received F’s and are at-risk of falling off track.
There’s a hodgepodge of reasons a student might be struggling: From family issues, chronic absenteeism and education disabilities to mental health, part-time jobs and many others.
“Is it they were just out sick and missed a big exam, or was it a lab? Do we need to make sure that they need to get that rescheduled?” she said, adding later: “I tell them ‘My job — my only job — is to help you get to graduation. So how can we do that? What’s going on?’”
Davis said sometimes students just need to get more involved in extracurricular activities or sports, which gives them that motivating factor to study and earn good grades.
“That’s something to fight for. It gives them a reason beyond graduation, because 9th and 10th graders have a very low sense of urgency,” she said. “It didn’t matter before. You get behind in middle school, it doesn’t matter. You get behind in high school and it matters.”
Success coordinators also put students on after-school tutoring contracts that mandate they attend a certain number of one-on-one tutoring opportunities.
The Success Hub is where they make things happen. It’s a small classroom on the second floor at Kennewick, near the counseling offices.
Here, students sit alone at one desk and work on assignments quietly with their success coordinators, who are well versed in their student’s curriculum and what major projects are required at each grade level.
Since the pressures of the outside world don’t leave once students walk through the doorways, families will also get connected to programs through their success coordinators.
“I think it is really just connecting the dots because there are a lot of resources,” Davis said.
Kennewick High has four coordinators — one specializing in each grade level. They’re different from counselors in that they work with a new group of students each year; counselors will track the progress of one class for the entirety of their time at the school.
Southridge High has three success coordinators and Kamiakin High School has one. Funding for these positions is tied to the percentage of free and reduced lunch students at each school.
Other schools in the Tri-Cities also have staff doing similar work.
About $14.7 million in levy funding supports graduation success coordinators, as well as librarians, dual language instructors, substitute teachers, special education support and other non-general education staff.
On Feb. 14, Kennewick School District voters will be asked to pass a three-year, nearly $72-million levy to fund health and safety programs, instructional support, special education support and advance placement programs, student learning and staffing, and athletics and extracurricular activities.
It’s not a new tax.
The annual burden on a home valued at $300,000 would be about $490 to $520 a year. But Washington state also plans to chip in $15 million in levy equalization assistance funding if the measure passes.
Next year, Kennewick schools will lose out on $34 million in local and state-matching funds after its initial levy requests failed to pass in 2022
Detrimental cuts to programs — such as the success coordinators — are likely if the district does not secure the funding starting in 2024, say school officials.
Increasing graduation rates
Alyssa St. Hilaire, Kennewick School District’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the district created the graduation success coordinators to increase the rate of students who graduate in four years.
It’s a model of student engagement that has had success, she said, and appears to be working well for the district.
In 10 years, the percentage of students who graduate in on time has risen from 74.5% to 82.4%.
This past school year, though, that rate dipped to 77.8% due to pandemic learning losses and students failing more classes because of remote learning.
The percentage of students graduating in five years has remained steady, hovering around 81-83% since 2015.
“All of our Kennewick students deserve to have an adult championing them,” Hilaire said. “The success coordinators help encourage and also help hold accountable our students. They’re cheerleaders and they also do some tough love at times.”
Aburto said Davis has helped him out a lot along the way by helping him build a consistent schedule, schedule tutoring and helping him navigate his academics. She began helping him his junior year.
It’s also thanks to Davis that Aburto found out he could use his literacy in Spanish to take a test and receive a seal of bi-literacy on his high school diploma.
Students in recent years have encountered more barriers to graduation than ever before, crushed between heightened economic stresses and tighter credit requirements from Washington state.
The Washington State Board of Education raised the number of credits required to graduate in recent years to 24, leaving very little room for students to fail. Knowing that you’re going to fail high school can also be incredibly demoralizing to students.
With graduation this month, Aburto says he feels like he has a clean slate to make the most of his future.
He’s unsure at the moment if he’ll go to college or enlist in the military, but knows he’ll have options open to him. He’s looking for a job in the meantime.
The oldest of six, Aburto says he wants to set an example for his brothers and sisters. Neither his mother or father received their high school diploma.
“I feel like there’s nothing weighing me down anymore,” he said. “Maybe (I’ll) go to college? I don’t know. We’ll figure that out.”