A School Where Raising the Bar Lifts Hope
SPOKANE, Wash. — Two weeks before graduation last spring, Lori Wyborney, the principal at John R. Rogers High School, and her three assistant principals gathered around a table covered with papers and Popeyes takeout. On a screen facing them was a list of three dozen students who administrators believed could succeed in an Advanced Placement class. But the students were not yet scheduled to take one in the fall.
The principals looked at each student’s profile, which included the student’s answers to districtwide survey questions about what worried them about A.P. classes, what subjects interested them and which adults in the building they trusted. Wyborney, concentrating as she sat with her elbows on the table and one hand absent-mindedly raised to her mouth, kept up a running commentary. “Boy, she’s not taking much next year,” she said of a student before placing her in A.P. digital photography. Of another: “He’s looking at a four-year college. He has got to get into A.P. English.”
Over and over, she declared, “I’m on it” as she scribbled the names of students to whom she planned to propose scheduling changes.
The meeting was part of a broad effort across the district to decrease the gap between the number of students from high-income families and low-income families who go to college. In Spokane, 48 percent of graduates in 2014 who received free or reduced-price lunch — a typical indicator of poverty — went on to higher education the next year, compared with 65 percent of those who didn’t receive subsidized meals, according to state data. Nationally, 52 percent of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolled in college that year, compared with 81 percent of high-income students.
The district aims for all students to enroll in some sort of postsecondary program after high school — whether it’s a community college, a university, a liberal arts college or a vocational program — and to remain at those schools until they earn a diploma or degree.
To make sure students persist in college is a deeper task than the usual work of helping them meet application deadlines and submit financial aid paperwork. Spokane’s educators have latched onto an idea that might strike others as counterintuitive: They believe they can get more students to go to college — and stay there — by making high school harder.
Spokane has eliminated all unchallenging classes, such as Outdoor Living, a science course that Wyborney described as “Camping 101.” College prep courses are now the default curriculum for all high school students, and the district has increased the number of A.P. courses it offers. Although students are required to take only three years each of lab science and math to earn a diploma, they’re pushed to take four years of each — and most do.
“We’ve eliminated choices to the point where you really only have college-ready choices,” Wyborney said. The strategy stems from a finding of federal research that a high school’s “academic intensity” still counts more than anything else that it does to help its students go on to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Specifically, Rogers High School’s work is modeled on efforts by Steven Gering, Spokane’s chief innovation and research officer. He was previously the principal of Spokane’s North Central High School; during his tenure, according to his analysis of state data, it recorded the largest increase in the state in the percentage of students attending college after graduation.
Spokane is an economically diverse city of roughly 200,000 people. Rogers High is in the city’s poorest neighborhood. About 78 percent of its 1,500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to state data.
Rogers has the lowest college-going rate in the district. But it made the most improvement in the last five years for which the city has full data, raising that rate from 43 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2015. And it’s sending more low-income students to four-year schools: 27 percent of its spring 2016 graduates who had received free lunch enrolled in the fall, the highest proportion of any school in the district.
Wyborney took over the school in 2010, when it graduated about 60 percent of its students and was selected to participate in a federal school turnaround program. Her office is decorated with Eastern Washington University sports team posters, portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, in nods to her educational roots as a coach, an athletic director and a history teacher. She casually refers to students she meets as “girlfriend” and “buddy.” Walking the hallways, she most often greets staff members and students with a touch on the arm and a joke.
But students also know Wyborney is serious about making them work harder. When a counselor tells her that a student doesn’t want to take a science course in his senior year, she doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s not happening,” she says.
In the class of 2016, 87 percent of graduates had taken four years of lab science, and nearly 90 percent had taken four years of math,Wyborney said. In the fall, 437 Rogers students were enrolled in A.P. courses, up from 372 the previous spring. The makeup of those classes nearly matched the socioeconomic and racial demographics of the school.
The harder classes don’t just prepare students academically. They help students visualize themselves at college, Wyborney said. “For kids in poverty, more often than not, what they’re saying is, ‘I’m not a good student,’ ” she said. “What we have to do is convince them, ‘Well, actually, you are.’ ”
This school year, she has held multiple assemblies to explain why she and teachers relentlessly push tougher schedules. She told students the statistics for their school’s ZIP code — a nearly 30 percent poverty rate and a 17 percent unemployment rate — and explained how a good education can help break the cycle of poverty.
Destiny Roupe entered high school five years ago assuming her family wouldn’t be able to afford college. But her teachers and principal wouldn’t stop talking about it.
“It was the way she talked to us, like we actually had a chance,” she said of Wyborney. “There wasn’t any doubt in her voice. For a while that shocked me. You could just feel the genuine hope for us to get out of where we are.”
The focus on A.P. classes, which tend nationally to serve students from high-income families, ultimately convincedRoupe that college was an option for her; she took eight of them before graduating in 2016 and going on to the University of Washington to study political science.
“We get the stigma that we’re not much when it comes to education, and I think those A.P. classes really help,” she said. “It helps us see we’re just as good as everyone else.”
The data on the benefits of enrolling in A.P. courses is not conclusive. Studies, including some paid for by the College Board, the organization that runs the A.P. program, have found that students who pass an A.P. exam do better in college. Other research has questioned whether the classes have any significant benefits when compared with honors courses.
In Spokane, the district pays the test fees for students who can’t afford them. Wyborney and Gering say there are benefits even if a student fails an A.P. exam: They learn the skills they need to succeed in college, such as note-taking, time management and how to form study groups. “For us, it’s more about the skill-building than it is about the content,” Wyborney said.
Spokane is updating its entire K-12 curriculum to teach those kinds of skills. Students in its early grades will not only do more research and weekly writing, but they’ll also start to learn good studying, note-taking and organizing strategies in fourth grade.
Roupe said she felt well equipped to tackle an English course in her first semester of college. “Being able to have a discussion about … books is a lot of what I did in high school,” she said. “I didn’t feel overwhelmed.”
As proud as they are of successful students like Roupe, administrators remain acutely aware of how far they have to go. On a snowy day in February, Wyborney and her administrative team gathered for a weekly meeting at Rogers around bags of chips and jars of salsa.
Wyborney handed out graduation-rate statistics from around the district. Rogers had hit a high of 82 percent in 2016. But her enthusiasm was restrained. “Just stats to look at, my little love bugs,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out 18 percent of the kids.”