The Critical 9th Grade Year – For At-Risk AND College Bound Students

This week SVSD is holding two meetings about its new Freshman Campus and its “stem immersion programming” launching next fall.  A Mount Si High School website page stated, “There will be small but impactful changes made. The main two are STEM and Core.”

The district says these changes are small, but in reality they could be big.  Along with separating students on the new campus, which can limit student access to valuable STEM-related courses they have access to today, the curriculum change could further decrease 9th graders access to class choice.

These stated small changes may result in unintended consequences for some students trying to complete certain courses in specific grade levels – courses equivalent to those provided to students in many other Washington school districts.

What is STEM/How is it Taught?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  Most districts integrate their core classes like science, math, and language arts into the STEM framework of their curriculum.  As high school students’ progress through a STEM focused curriculum, they take more in-depth and technical classes as they get into their junior and senior years.

Our district is proposing replacing the current 9th grade PE requirement with an exploratory STEM class, in which students are exposed to four different STEM courses during the one-year class – making up a 4-in-1 stem exploratory class. Three of the courses SVSD cites (with course descriptions) were developed by curriculum companies, Project Lead the Way and The Stem Academy; companies that stated they are not working with SVSD. Both also say they do not have/offer their materials, or curriculum, condensed into 45-day segments.

1st Semester – Sustainable Engineering


2nd Semester – Bio Informatics 


STEM education as a framework is growing and embraced by the education community.  Washington State is a leader in developing stem-related jobs. Statistics show, though, our state is not producing enough college graduates with stem-related degrees to fill these jobs, forcing companies to recruit employees from out-of-state.

Ninth grade core courses are required because they are graduation requirements. If STEM is going to be added to our district’s high school graduation requirements policy, the school board may decide to adopt this new STEM mandate as part of that policy.

PE is currently included in SVSD graduation requirements policy because it is a state-level requirement. STEM is not. In fact, there is a state statute that requires schools to offer one credit of PE to students in each year of high school.

Dana Bailey, principal of Issaquah’s former 9th grade campus, said for students on her campus, a full-year PE course was non-negotiable.  During SVSD’s journey to create a freshman campus, Dana Bailey was consulted, so why aren’t we heeding her advice about PE?

Also, as it stands now, this 9th grade STEM exploratory class has no opt-out option, meaning all students must take it.  SVSD currently allows PE opt-outs for academic scheduling reasons.

While no one doubts the benefits of STEM, it is most often offered as an opt-in educational path.  Most districts create a STEM framework and offer their courses within the boundary of the framework, even creating separate STEM campuses.  Then they offer STEM courses along side their traditional educational courses for students wishing to opt in.

Ninth grade year on STEM campuses typically has STEM integrated into required core courses so students get both stem exposure and complete course requirements. This “two birds with one stone” approach ensures students get a solid course foundation.  During later high school years, after the initial STEM exposure, students take in-depth, year-long and multi-year courses; ones similar to those SVSD proposes condensing to 45 days for its freshman

What Do We Know?

High school is crunch time; the last four years of K-12 education that are critical in establishing students’ post high school college and/or work paths.

In 2011, at a MSHS freshman student assembly, 9th graders were asked how many were planning to attend college.  A majority raised their hands.

Since most SVSD 9th graders say they want to attend college, it becomes critical to understand exactly what impact this new class has on students’ road to college.

How will colleges view this new exploratory, sampler STEM class?  Principal Belcher said college admissions offices might see it as a science, occupational education or an elective class, but he was not yet certain how it will count.

As the new curriculum is only in the infancy stage, is it possible to know, with total certainty, how colleges will view this required 9th grade course, or if the State Office of Public Instruction will certify it as a specific type of course – for both graduation and/or as a minimum college requirement?

One North Bend parent worries about the side effects of requiring a new STEM exploratory course.  His worry is that it fills a spot in a 9th grader’s schedule for a full year, but may not “count” as a math or science course for college admissions.  Research shows exploratory courses are usually part of middle school model or are very useful for students at-risk of not graduating (pg 11 ).

While that parent agrees it could be a good course addition for some students, he worries it’s not necessarily beneficial for college bound students who need room in their schedules for lab sciences and other core courses that satisfy college entrance or state graduation requirements.

He believes it’s important that students with varying post-high school plans have options to build their own transcript in a way that many students elsewhere do.

Summary:  What courses students take AND what high school year they are taken determines the pace for checking off necessary graduation and college entrance requirements. For example, students that begin foreign language in middle school check off those requirement boxes earlier than students who start foreign language in 9th or 10th grade, thus creating more room in their high school schedules.

Foreign language is purely an example to illustrate how taking a course early opens up room for additional advanced courses and other courses valuable to a student’s post high school plans. 

What the STEM course developers say

The stem classes comprising the proposed SVSD 4-in-1 course will each be explored for 45 days, but most were designed as 180-day courses by their developers.  Additionally, if their STEM curriculum is purchased and/or if districts enter into usage agreements with them (which SVSD has not done yet), they also enter into agreements to use the series of courses that follow – sometimes course sequences for each high school year .

These STEM companies also include teacher training for their courses.  Some require teachers have bachelors degrees and a backgrounds in biology.  Our district stated teacher re-training will be required for the proposed STEM class, meaning new math/science teachers won’t be hired.  Current 9th grade math and science teachers have geometry/algebra and integrated science to teach – leaving them unavailable to instruct the new course.  The teachers possibly targeted to instruct the STEM course are those who are losing freshmen volume in their classes – i.e. PE and other elective teachers.

9th grade counts

Education experts recommend taking courses that fulfill important requirements during the 9th grade. Those requirements should be high school graduation or college admissions requirements (CADR).

For more information please read: How Building a Competitive Transcript for College Can Be Like Playing Bingo.

This is why area school districts provide optional science paths, some which allow math-ready students to take biology and/or integrated science 2 in 9th grade and chemistry in 10th grade, leaving a student’s junior and senior year to explore more advanced science courses.  Many well-known school districts in western Washington provide this option.

Currently all Bellevue School District 9th graders take biology (although not the norm statewide) and Issaquah provides multiple science paths that provide 9th and some 8th grade students biology. SVSD currently has one pathway: 9th grade Integrated Science 1 and all 10th graders take Integrated Science 2 (counts as biology). The state-required Biology End-of-Course-Exam (EOC) is then taken at the end of 10th grade.

Ask Yourself

This past year I’ve heard it stated (sometimes by district employees) that our kids are different in the valley.  I am still trying to figure out what that means or justifies. I don’t believe my children are different from students in other school districts.

Are my children different? Or is possibly their curriculum and access to certain courses during certain grade levels different?

Is this new 9th grade STEM requirement something that increases opportunities for valley students wanting to attend selective 4-year universities? Studies point to a college degree as the key to the STEM jobs of the future, earning middle-class incomes and insulation from the recent recession layoffs that plagued workers without those college degrees.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) states “Increasing mathematics and science course taking is one goal of current education reform efforts.Policymakers are calling for high school students to take more courses in mathematics and science, particularly at the advanced level, to ensure they are adequately prepared for college and careers and to keep the United States competitive in the global marketplace.”

The NSF specifies, “General science courses include science survey, introduction to physics, and biology 1. Advanced science courses include advanced biology, chemistry, and physics. It is because of this that we find it typical that students with a certain math co-requisite in many school districts are provided the opportunity to enroll into a science path by which they take Biology in their first year of high school, and why students are encouraged to then carry on with advanced Science coursework in Chemistry, Physics and then the AP levels of these courses if they have room in their schedules in the 11th and 12th grades.”

The Mount Si Freshman Campus will help at-risk students graduate from high school and decrease its dropout rate, but at the same time, shouldn’t we ensure certain classes are accessible to SVSD students during 9th grade – classes that many students elsewhere have available to them?  Classes that are the “tried and true” college prep courses (e.g. ACT and College Board) or a STEM program with a course“sequence that has been proven with “best practices” like those of Project Lead the Way and The STEM Academy?

Who Controls Schools

Washington schools are controlled locally.  The purpose of local schools (versus being state or federally controlled) is to allow communities to define what they want in their schools, within certain state parameters.

Residents elect school board members as their representative voice.  This means the community and board is the oversight committee of their school district.

Changing high school curriculum is a big deal.  The community should hold its district accountable, ensuring they cross the T’s and dot the I’s, because ultimately, it’s their children’s education and futures at stake

It’s imperative to see the curriculum beyond a basic framework, know what teachers will be trained to instruct that curriculum and what company develops it.

As community representatives, it’s the school board’s responsibility to approve new curriculum with a comprehensive understanding of its impact on students’ post high school plans.  All students should have access to their needed core courses, whether they are support courses, foundational and general courses or accelerated courses. During a time of curriculum overhaul, no group should be left out.

When all the work is done and the community and school board approve, then implement that curriculum on the freshman campus; one  infused with choice and right for all students.

For information about courses in other states’ 9th grade campuses and 9th grade programming click HERE.



Comments are closed.


  • While I am seriously concerned about the relevance of the coursework available for the students at the 9th grade campus, I am more seriously concerned that it appears our school board is either being misled or is being misleading about the STEM program as they are choosing to implement it. This part of your story has me disgusted: ” Three of the courses SVSD cites (with course descriptions) were developed by curriculum companies, Project Lead the Way and The Stem Academy; companies that stated they are not working with SVSD. Both also say they do not have/offer their materials, or curriculum, condensed into 45-day segments.” So who is faking up the STEM curriculum for the freshman campus, and why?

  • I like the idea of STEM education, but from everything I am seeing, our school district really does not have a well thought out game plan. I am all for technology, but not if it takes away from essential credits needed to graduate. If college requirements change, I am all for updating the high school curriculum. But if it puts our kids at a disadvantage when competing for finite openings or scholarships, I have to question why we are doing it. I look forward to these meetings… hopefully we can find a path to doing the right thing by our kids (personally, I think the district needs more time to come up with a compelling, well thought out, solution, and move away from what appears to be a “Ready-Fire-Aim” approach).

    1. So, I sat through the information session at the high school this evening. For those that are concerned about the new approach, I would encourage you to attend (I think there is another one later this week). It was an interesting and informative session. I was impressed that they do have a plan that they are working toward, a timeline to get there, and they have a pretty good grasp of what they don’t have answers for yet (which, honestly, impressed me the most… pretty decent project management going on). Lots of healthy discussion at the end of the presentation and I think they did a good job of addressing people’s concerns. As with anything new, we will have to wait and see how things land, and I am sure there will be bumps (there always are in new projects… and they acknowledged it too). But, there is a lot of promise in the approach they want to take to teaching (my opinion.. may not work for others), and addressed my concern about the PE change for 9th grade (hoping they can land all of it). I have to admit, I am cautiously optimistic about this now.

      Regardless of where you sit on the issue, I would encourage you to get the info from all perspectives and decide for yourself. I found it worth the 90 minutes and look forward to future updates on this.

      1. Thanks, Greg. I am glad you went. I have seen the presentation twice now. Hopefully they can have the curriculum ironed out in the next 3-4 months and materials approved by the board so it’s done in time for 9th grade registration, which happens in late winter/early spring. I still maintain the district needs to consider this class and the approach to teaching may not be a fit for all kids’ post high school plans, hence, it should not be required. The OSPI office says to require a class of 9th graders the class should be a graduation requirement so I would hope it is vetted whether or not the board plans to make it a new grad. requirement. Personally, I would rather see this course be opt-in vs. NO opt-out and if the curriculum is changed and tweaked it is the perfect time to also provide classes aligning with the new education pathways and benchmarks policy to 9th graders, like an accelerated science pathway so students who need it can get to chemistry in 10th grade (like many other districts offer). Currently the only way we provide to students to do this is by doubling up in 10th grade and taking Int. Science 2 and chemistry at the same time. Just like the middle school math paths that were introduced this year – it would be nice to see the same thing done with science and offer an accelerated path that starts in middle school and feeds to the freshman and main campus.

  • Reading through this article really made me question where this 9th grade campus is heading. I am by no means opposed to STEM. In fact, I think STEM is a good thing–for some kids. I am, however, somewhat shocked the District is going to require all 9th graders to take a STEM “sampler” class. Even more questionable, is the fact the sampler was not endorsed by top STEM educational developers or been approved by the Board or OSPI as a bonafide graduation requirement. This type of class seems like something students should be able to take as an elective or should be taking in middle school as a means to spark an interest in a STEM related career. I am with Gina Spiller on this one. It really makes me wonder who is in charge. More importantly, it really makes me wonder why in the world we are disrupting so many kids and teachers for a program that is, at best, unordinary and experimental.

    1. What ever happened to proper planning? Will we be purchasing this expensive curriculum? I did not see it planned in the budget…

      1. Anna, I believe Mr. Aune stated that that those budgets were already accounted for (at least for teacher 9 (re) training) in Don McConkey’s professional development? budget. They also mentioned there being lots of STEM grant money available that they would apply for in the coming months. Those budgets were separate from the general, operational costs of the new campus – like principal salary, etc. And they said they won’t hire new teachers for this class. They will use current teachers so teachers who lose freshman volume load in their classes won’t be out of a job. I have also been told that STEM grant money doesn’t pay teacher salaries. Hope that made sense.

  • Excellent information, insights. Hope many are listening.
    Kristan, don’t give up on Mt. Si, despite this-students can receive an excellent education there which well prepares them for college-and it’s free.

  • I agree with Jerry, that students at Mount Si High are getting excellent educations with a variety of tracks available – including college tracks. We are very appreciative and impressed with the level of education Mount Si offers. During a period of curriculum redesign, which is taking place now for the future students, is a ood time to 1) learn what is being developed, 2) look at what students are taking in other schools (including comprehensive, STEM magnets, and freshman campuses), and 3) be a part of the discussion as to how parents might like to see certain options in our own new program as it is developed in the comming months – while also looking at what might be typical, or emerging new strategies or other best practices out there. This could be a positive discussion during this period of change.

  • Jerry – I beg to differ with you comment on ” Its Free ” the citizens of this country/ state who are contributing tax payers and property owners have paid for this education opportunity. SVSD has a fiduciary responsiblity to use our tax dollars to the highest and best use. I will agree there are many students graduating Mt Si with amazing talents and opportunities at all levels of post K-12 education. Not every student is the same and college is not always for everyone. We need employers to hire students, future employees, with skills, as well as those with a 4 yr+ post secondary education and that has never been more critical than with an unemployment rate at 7.9% being a ridiculous norm. Providing the students and their families options vs required mandates should be offered at SVSD. Four years go by very quickly and hopefully SVSD can offer a path that will fit all students needs. It will be interesting to hear what is being presented Thursday night.

  • Living Snoqualmie