Last June, parents and teachers in Spokane cheered as their students walked across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. But the community had even more cause to celebrate: a jump in graduation rates depicting Spokane Public Schools’ growth from a struggling district to one with a graduation rate higher than the state average.
Nine years earlier in 2008, only sixty percent of students were expected to graduate high school in Spokane Public Schools. At Rogers High School, graduation rates barely hit forty-nine percent. The District made a commitment to changing that outcome, and it worked. They hit 86% in 2017 and are on track to continue growing thanks to a robust Early Warning Data and Intervention System.
The hard work began in 2011, when SPS brought in researcher Mary Beth Celio to help them understand why some Spokane students were graduating while others lagged behind. Celio dissected data from the classes of 2008 and 2010. Her findings pointed to three indicators we’re now seeing used in high schools across the country called the “ABC’s”: attendance, behavior, and course completion. Kids who struggled to attend class, behave in school, or pass their courses early in high school – or even in middle school -- were much less likely to finish high school.
During the study period, not every student who dropped out could have been predicted, [Director of Assessment] Gering says. About 15 percent of students who dropped out showed no early indicators of doing so. He says the other 85 percent of students who dropped out could have been identified based on their performance in school and behavior before junior year in high school. Almost half could have been identified as a drop-out risk at the elementary or middle school level. (Spokane Journal, 2012)
Spokane took Celio’s findings and used them to create an Early Warning System that could be used to support every student in the district on their path to graduation. Its purpose was to track the ABC’s for each student and make it easy for administrators, counselors, and teachers to know who was at risk of dropping out.
An effective Early Warning System doesn’t create more work for schools. It simply takes the data schools already gather on students and helps them understand how to best support them. Dr. Steven Gering, Spokane’s director of assessment at the time, explained the Early Warning System when it was launched in 2012: “Keeping track of student performance isn't a new thing. The district and educators within the district have already been doing that…what’s new about this program is the automation of compiling the data nightly.”
In November of last year, I visited Spokane, where Chief Academic Officer Adam Swinyard and Shawn Jordan, Supervising Director of Secondary Programs & Special Services, gave an overview of how the system operates now over five years later.
The way Adam and Shawn describe it, the Early Warning System is not designed to be prescriptive. Rather, it gives “freedom within structure” by collecting the data and then offering tools for schools to develop workplans emphasizing learning strategies and social emotional learning. By recognizing that every student has a very individual, very personal reason for dropping out, schools can adjust their methods of operation to respond to more types of situations and with more effective, tailored solutions.
The key is to start early, before some students are even thinking about graduation. A considerable amount of research demonstrates the importance of keeping students on track in ninth grade by focusing specifically on preventing course failure during this make-or-break year for high school students (this week, in fact, two dozen schools in Seattle won a $1M grant to pursue similar programming for their 9th graders). Because this year is so critical, Early Warning Systems pay special attention to incoming freshman to make sure they end the year feeling confident in their ability to make it through high school.
This shift in Spokane over the last decade to focus on individual student success through the Early Warning System has proven to be one of the most successful decisions in the school district’s recent history. In 2014 Spokane County was given the Culture of Health Award for its efforts to give students more opportunities to succeed. In 2017 Spokane’s Rogers High School was featured in The New York Times. Graduation rates have grown from a low-point at 49% in 2008 to a high of 82% in 2016, thanks to Principal Lori Wyborney’s efforts to make sure every student is accounted for and that classes are rigorous, useful, and engaging. The school has also seen the most improvement in its college-going rate out of any school in the district, raising it ten points from 2011 to 2015 to 53%.
Spokane’s Early Warning System and their resulting improvements is a true model for what successful dropout prevention and early intervention efforts can look like in Washington. Fortunately, other districts in Washington are building similar systems and achieving great results The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has highlighted eleven districts implementing successful Early Warning Data and Intervention Systems; all have shown outstanding graduation rates with little disproportionality for students in poverty.
With the right policies and thoughtful implementation, every school in Washington could have an effective early warning data and intervention system. We see in Spokane and other districts how useful data, individualized support, and caring adults can help keep students in the classroom and on a path to achieving their dreams.