Just over five miles separate Toppenish and Zillah High Schools in the Yakima Valley region of rural Eastern Washington. But distance isn’t the only thing these schools have in common.
In the last year, Toppenish’s Trevor Greene was named the National High School Principal of the Year and Zillah’s Jeff Charbonneau (pictured left) was named National Teacher of the Year. And both schools are partners with University of Washington GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally-funded grant program aimed to increase the number of low-income middle and high school students who are prepared to enter and succeed in college.
The accomplishments for which Greene and Charbonneau were honored included their efforts to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives in partnership with UW GEAR UP programs at their respective schools.
“These awards demonstrate that GEAR UP is being incorporated into the schools in a meaningful way,” UW GEAR UP director Loueta Johnson said. “The significance of having them both at the same time indicates that our curriculum is moving and we think this demonstrates the impact we’re having with our partnering schools.”
At Toppenish High School, Greene added 27 engineering and biomedical classes, a Microsoft IT Academy class and a robotics class. Under his leadership, student participation in STEM courses increased, the school’s dropout rate decreased and state science scores increased 67% over three years. Last September, he was recognized at a special surprise assembly in Toppenish and at a black-tie gala in Washington, D.C. The award included a grant of $5,000 for the school.
Charbonneau, a chemistry, physics and engineering teacher, created the ZHS Robot Challenge and has focused on making what are perceived as “difficult” STEM classes more accessible to students. He has created interactive learning experiences to help students develop confidence. In April, he was honored by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House and will spend the coming academic year as a spokesperson and advocate for the teaching profession.
According to Toppenish School District Superintendent John Cerna, the strength of Toppenish High School’s STEM programs made the difference in Greene’s national honor, as did GEAR UP.
“Without the support of GEAR UP, it never would have happened,” Cerna said. “GEAR UP has been a huge part of the accolades that we have received throughout the years and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
Administered by the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D), GEAR UP serves nearly 5,000 students in 14 school districts in the Skagit and Yakima Valleys. GEAR UP partner schools have high-poverty and traditionally low-achieving student populations.
In recent years, GEAR UP has grown to feature an emphasis on support for STEM programs and activities. Since 2010, the GEAR UP-funded program Project Lead the Way has been offered in seven Yakima Valley high schools including Toppenish and Zillah. The program teaches students the skills required to perform well in college-level math and science courses, and in STEM careers. Classes feature hands-on, real world experiences and allow students the opportunity to earn college credits.
In 2011, the GEAR UP grant expanded to include a Rural Initiative in STEM Education and Undergraduate Preparation (RISE UP) partnership with schools aimed to increase the percentage of students taking rigorous and challenging STEM courses. Among its programs is an Early Engineering Institute for middle school students on the UW campus, hosted by RISE UP GEAR UP and the UW College of Engineering. This year’s institute will take place July 22-25.
Recent honors for GEAR UP partners don’t end with Greene and Charbonneau. Sunnyside School District superintendent Rick Cole was named one of three recipients of the 2013 Robert J. Handy Most Effective Administrator Award. Grandview High School was named a Washington State Reward School for High Progress in recognition of making strides in test scores and graduation rates over the past three years.
Royal High School and Royal Middle School (Royal City, Wash.) received the 2012 Washington Achievement Award in the area of science and four VEX robotics teams from Toppenish Middle School qualified for the 2013 World Championships in Anaheim, Calif.
As a result of its partnership with UW GEAR UP ‘s Project Lead the Way at the middle and high school levels, Toppenish’s Garfield Elementary School was selected to join 44 schools nationwide that will participate in a pilot program designed to tailor STEM programs for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Improving all aspects of education is at the core of the UW’s commitment to turning the University inside out and applying its insight to enacting change in our communities. By teaching these students tomorrow’s STEM skills today, OMA&D pre-college programs such as UW GEAR UP are doing exactly that.
“The classes we support and instigate in the early grades are putting students on the STEM track and giving them a foundation and the confidence to succeed in college STEM programs,” Johnson said.
Cerna has been involved with UW GEAR UP since 2000 and even in his role as superintendent, oversees these programs in his district. He credits GEAR UP for making a substantial impact in his schools.
“It’s changed the culture of the high school,” Cerna said. “It’s helped change the culture of the middle school. It’s added rigor and relevancy. When you get a program that’s project-based like Project Lead the Way, students are actually applying the learning and when they do that, they understand the relevancy of why they have to know the math and higher level sciences, physics and calculus.”
GEAR UP is one of several pre-college programs administered by OMA&D that inspire underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students in grades 6-12 to pursue higher education and prepare them for college. Learn more about these programs.