“Failure is Not an Option”: Washington High School’s Focus on Freshmen Boosts Graduation Rates


Ten years ago, Washington High School (WHS) in Tacoma, Washington, was deemed a dropout factory: Only 57 percent of freshmen students graduated in four years. Over the past decade, however, the graduation rate at WHS has increased by 30 percentage points, to an impressive 87 percent. And importantly, this rate is even higher among the school’s students of color: 97 percent of black students and 91 percent of Latino students at WHS graduated in 2016.

How did WHS—which is the 9th most diverse high school in the nation—pull off this remarkable improvement in graduation rates? It took an explicit focus on the very beginning of their students’ high school experience. “We knew that if we were going to change our school culture around graduation, the success of our freshmen was going to be an important part,” says Principal James Hester. “We had data that showed us that way too many freshmen were failing their core classes, and one of the big reasons they were failing was that they weren’t completing the work.”

Backed up by research that links freshmen success to graduation, the school leadership team designed an intervention that focused on ensuring 9th graders completed their class work. Teachers in the 9th grade core subjects began more closely monitoring for students who weren’t getting their assignments done, and they referred students who were at risk of falling behind to the Freshman Success program—a study hall-type time when students focus on completing their assignments.

It’s a simple intervention, but it has been extremely effective in helping 9th graders at WHS get—and stay—on track. “What we’ve found is that when kids are given this time, they do the work,” Hester says. And the impact is clear in the data: freshman failure rates at WHS have plunged. In 2007, 38 percent of 9th graders failed algebra, but in 2016, only 10 percent failed. And in English, the freshman failure rate has dropped from 31 percent to 10 percent between 2007 and 2016.

For students, the Freshman Success program is a formative experience that helps them establish good habits and mindsets early on in their high school careers. “I’m an athlete and I’m always busy with practice after school, so as a freshman, it was hard for me to find the time to get my work done outside of school,” says Joshua Camacho, now an 11th grader at WHS. “The program is what helped me get my assignments done and just taught me to stay on top of my work.”

Maria Manatu, another 11th grader, agrees. “I realized Freshman Success kind of gave me a little red flag to stay on top of my work,” she says. “You can’t really get anywhere unless you’re staying on top of your goals. Any assignments that are missing can mean so much for your future.”

Even as WHS’s freshman dropout rates have declined, and its graduation rates are on the rise, Hester is eager to continue to improve outcomes for his students. One way he and his staff are doing this is by beginning to establish a schoolwide focus on combatting chronic absenteeism, especially among freshman students. As Hester puts it, “We know that if we get them here at school, we can make it happen. Failure is not an option here.”