Improving high school graduation rates for at-risk youth is personal to me

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Special to The News Tribune.

When I was younger, I was uprooted from my home and placed in the state's foster care system. Although my home life was unstable, I had good relationships with my teachers and counselors at school, even when my behavior didn't warrant their kindness.

In high school, I enrolled in Running Start, which enabled me to earn my doctorate at age 25.

I used to wonder why other children in the foster care system didn't take the same path, but then I learned I was the exception, not the rule. For every success story, three or four foster children were falling through the cracks, and only a fraction of those who graduated high school were going on to earn bachelor's degrees.

While the high school graduation rate for foster youth has since risen to 43 percent, that number still trails every other student group in Washington by a wide margin. Furthermore, we haven't made much progress when it comes to foster youth earning bachelor's degrees.

One of the primary reasons for this is the way high school credit is awarded to students in Washington. Most foster children enroll in a new school every time they change foster homes. These moves are usually not well-planned, which means many students end up moving during the middle of the school year.

Changing schools can present significant challenges to obtaining graduation credits because many schools do not award partial credit. This means students can have perfect attendance and excellent test scores, but still fail.

Because our state has a 24-credit graduation requirement, it's almost impossible for students to make up a semester of credits and still graduate on time.

Fortunately, a bill addressing this issue was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee this month. Senate Bill 5241 will finally allow partial credit to be awarded to students who change schools mid-semester.

Another barrier that prevents many foster youth from graduating on time are local school district graduation requirements, which are implemented on top of state and federal requirements.

In Kitsap County, for example, South Kitsap School District requires students to enroll in a swim class to graduate. Bremerton School District requires a passing grade in a financial management course, while North Kitsap School District requires an additional history credit.

For students who attend the same high school all three or four years, these requirements could enhance their education. For those who change districts, however, it could be what prevents them from graduating on time.

That's why I sponsored House Bill 1444 this session, and why I'm glad the governor has signed it. The new law will require school districts to facilitate on-time grade-level progression and graduation for homeless, foster and at-risk youth.

It will waive local graduation requirements and ensure a diploma is issued to high school students who had enrolled in three or more districts throughout the year and still met state graduation requirements. State law provides similar waivers for children in military families.

As a former foster child and foster mother, working to provide opportunities for at risk-youth to succeed is personal to me. While I was one of the lucky ones who made it out of the system, many did not.

If we continue to work together, I'm confident we can prevent yet another generation of children from slipping through the cracks.

State Representative Michelle Caldier, 26th Legislative District
122H Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 956-7562 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000