Why you should care

Because simple shifts in thinking can create great results.

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It seems the whole town of Chehalis, in western Washington, has turned up for the W.F. West High School graduation. Cars overflow, spilling into nearby residential streets while parents pack into bleachers beneath colorful banners hanging from the gym’s rafters. The biggest achievement? More than two-fifths of these graduates have won college scholarships — no small thing for a tiny rural district. Students march in to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” determined educators having paved their way toward a college diploma.

This first step toward college, however, doesn’t necessarily spell SUCCESS. There is a boom in high-paying, high-tech jobs in Seattle — named the fastest-growing major U.S. city last year in a census data analysis by the Seattle Times — yet two-thirds of Washington high school grads are not earning college degrees, and thus not qualifying for those high-flying city jobs. In response, high schools in rural districts like Chehalis are retooling to focus on teacher retraining, and college guidance and acceptance through budget-friendly means as well as follow-through support, all while tracking stats to prove they’re moving forward.

There’s a lot here that blows holes in both the left and the right’s arguments

J. Vander Stoep, board member, Chehalis Foundation

Nationally, an emphasis on collegiate pursuits has led to a rethinking of K–12 education, which in turn has generated creative solutions like dual-credit aviation courses in rural Kentucky and “early colleges” in New York, where students leave high school with associate degrees. Everything is on the table, from demolishing demoralizing classrooms to teaching physics with a skateboard. “We’re familiar with the category of high school, category of college,” says Stephen Tremaine, vice president of Bard Early Colleges, and yet “too often we’re confused by anything that blurs the lines between the two.” That’s changing though, with educators increasingly measuring six-year success rates to examine how many students earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, says Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. “The metric has been around for a while, but its usage on the high school level is rapidly expanding. It gets back to that question: What is the ultimate responsibility of a high school?”

Asking that very question has changed everything for the Chehalis school district in recent years. The impetus came when Orin Smith, the former CEO of Starbucks, decided he wanted to help his alma mater. But Smith had a question: Although W.F. West High School was known for an award-winning STEM program, how many of the students actually went on to earn college degrees? Administrators didn’t know, so with help from the Chehalis Foundation, a local education nonprofit, they commissioned a study to provide an answer. The finding shocked them: Despite a high school graduation rate that hovered consistently around 82 percent, only about 20 percent of their students earned four-year degrees within six years.

Orin Smith

Orin Smith, former CEO of Starbucks and graduate of W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Washington.

Source Ron Wurzer/Getty

In response, Chehalis set an ambitious goal of reaching 60 percent college diploma attainment by 2024 — a shift that “spurred a systemic change in the school district,” says assistant superintendent Mary Lou Bissett. Before, only about 38 percent of students were graduating with all the credits necessary to apply for college; this year, more than half did, thanks to educators who adjusted course loads. The district spent three years reteaching its teachers, emphasizing a collaborative approach with students over command-and-control. Lectures are replaced with question-and-answer sessions and group discussion, fostering debate rather than note-taking. “The goal of the Chehalis school district [before] was to get them their cap and gown,” says Chehalis Foundation board member J. Vander Stoep. “Now it’s a college- and career-focused school district.”

That might not be an easy shift for school districts without benefactors. After all, the Chehalis Foundation commissioned the study that prompted the district’s reformation — helped by $1 million in donations from Smith and others — and is paying half of the salary of a nearby Centralia College counselor, who is personally guiding nearly 100 Chehalis graduates toward attaining degrees. And while there are signs of early success — more than four-fifths of the graduating class is headed to some postsecondary institution — it’s still “a pretty short period of time,” notes Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. “There are very few silver bullets in education.”

Still, many changes made at Chehalis are affordable for all districts, regardless of funding — measures like simply marking every teacher’s nameplate with the college they attended or giving seniors 25 minutes a day to work on college and career planning. Nearby Onalaska, a waning logging town, saw all 43 of its graduates accepted to college after implementing a daily 50-minute class for seniors. Simply raising awareness “is a significant factor,” says Cook, considering that only 54 percent of high school seniors complete the free federal aid FAFSA application nationally, according to a 2016 survey by her organization. “The remaining 46 percent are not the millionaires of the country,” she says, noting that many who are eligible do not apply. In Chehalis, the middle school guidance counselor now hounds every eighth-grader to sign up for Washington’s need-based tuition scholarship, College Bound. In recent years, every eligible student has signed up for the scholarship, Vander Stoep says, compared to 17 percent just a few years ago.

Washington Students

The Chehalis Foundation supports programs designed to help students in the local school district become career or college ready.

Source Chehalis Foundation/Facebook

The public-private partnership model, like working with the Chehalis Foundation, is “not only replicable,” Lake says, but becoming more common. Nationally, nonprofits are already involved in helping schools offer arts education. In Los Angeles, for instance, 130 schools reported they provided arts instruction with help from about 50 outside groups, according to a 2015 Los Angeles Times analysis. Those are less common outside the arts, but could prove a model that cuts through the public-charter debate.

“There’s a lot here that blows holes in both the left and the right’s arguments,” says Vander Stoep, adding that schools must demonstrate value first, like Chehalis did with its STEM program, before raising funds. “That’s the chicken and the egg here: The district has to offer something exceptional. It can’t just be, ‘We’re keeping the doors barely open and hoping our kids stay alive another day — will you help us?’”

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