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Making College the Expectation, Not the Exception

eNews Header Fall 2015A tremendous culture shift is taking place at a small, remote high school on the banks of the Columbia River in southwest Washington.

It began around two years ago when new principal Stephanie Leitz joined the staff and a realization took place. Education had always been valued at Wahkiakum High School, but college wasn’t the typical path for most students. Even its top scholars didn’t have the skills to be competitive in higher education or career readiness.

There was a lot at stake for the entire community as well, a place where depleted economic resources had affected the livelihood of many residents. Fifty percent of the school’s 135 students were on free or reduced lunch.

GEAR UP EDIBut thanks to Leitz and team of teachers willing to initiate change, as well as support from the UW GEAR UP Educator Development Initiative (EDI), attending college is becoming the expectation – not the exception – at Wahkiakum High School.

To help turn the tides, Wahkiakum staff created a quarter-credit program called Mule Success. Named after the school mascot, its intent is to equip students with tools and skills to successfully pursue college or career readiness. For 30 minutes during the regular school day, three days a week, students have access to organized study skills sessions, individual mentoring, peer tutoring and leadership activities. The staff also brought Advanced Placement classes into the curriculum and created a community partnership with Lower Columbia College to expose students to early college placement testing.

Among the key components that helped Wahkiakum integrate these changes were tools and resources they acquired through professional development opportunities offered by Washington State GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and their partnership with UW’s GEAR UP EDI.

GEAR UP EDI is housed within the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D). It provides support for educators who work with low-income middle and high school students served by Washington State GEAR UP.

Success for Wahkiakum came fast. The percentage of students receiving low grades quickly decreased. Students started talking about their grades and showing pride in their progress. School assemblies were held to celebrate academic excellence. Eighty-seven percent of the graduating class of 2014 enrolled in college or enlisted in the military.

Wahkiakum High School teachers Michele Haberlach (left) and Audrey Petterson share the secrets to creating their Mule Success program at the 2015 UW GEAR UP EDI Summer Institute. Photo: Long Dinh

The staff is also – through presentations at conferences such as last June’s UW GEAR UP EDI Summer Institute – showing teachers how their success can be replicated at other similar schools across the state.

Let’s Tell Our Story                 

About one year into the Mule Success program, math teacher Michele Haberlach approached Leitz with an idea.

Haberlach was also new to Wahkiakum and one of the teachers at the forefront of initiating the school’s culture shift. A former helicopter pilot in the United States military, she previously taught at an urban school. It occurred to her that perhaps what they were doing at rural Wahkiakum was special.

“I think we should tell our story,” Haberlach said to Leitz. “I looked at the numbers and they are pretty impressive. I have a feeling that (other schools) just aren’t doing this.”

Leitz and Haberlach first presented their work at the GEAR UP West Conference last October. It received such a great response, UW GEAR UP EDI Director Roseann London asked them to do the same for college access staff and principals at a workshop in March.

Haberlach outlines tips for how other small, rural schools can create a college-going culture. Photo: Long Dinh

London again tapped Wahkiakum to make their presentation to GEAR UP teachers from across the state at her annual summer institute at the UW in June. Called “Teaching Today for College Tomorrow,” the four-day event at McCarty Hall provided curriculum resources and instructional strategies for preparing low-income students for success in higher education.

“The steps that Wahkiakum has taken to increase expectations and prepare students for education after high school requires courage, creativity and collaboration,” said London. “I asked the team to share so that other similar schools could learn from their successes, as well as be inspired by their willingness to try new things and think outside of the box.”

Teachers Teaching Teachers

Teachers in attendance at the GEAR UP EDI Summer Institute engage in discussion during Wahkiakum’s presentation. Photo: Long Dinh

Wahkiakum’s presentation detailed how they have integrated Mule Success into their school day and provided opportunities for teachers to participate in activities that got them thinking about what they might be able to do at their own schools.

Having Wahkiakum present their work at the summer institute was a natural fit considering that GEAR UP resources had played such a key role in what they’ve been able to accomplish.

For instance, English teacher Audrey Petterson, who joined Haberlach for the presentation at the UW, implemented changes in her reading curriculum based on material received from previous GEAR UP sessions. She is now able to better align her students with college and career readiness standards.

Both Petterson and Haberlach agreed the professional connections they make with other teachers at these events are critical to success as well, especially those from communities who face similar economic challenges.

“Sometimes we forget that if you’re small, remote and rural, your kids have some of the same challenges that an urban minority kid is going to have in an inner-city setting,” Haberlach said. “I really appreciate the fact that Roseann gets that and she gets that there a lot of communities like us. If you can bring us together, we can share really good ideas that work.”

Wahkiakum teachers (left to right) Michael Thomas, Petterson, Haberlach and Don Cox. Photo: Long Dinh

According to Petterson, having the opportunity to “teach other teachers” allowed them to also evaluate their progress thus far.

“Any time that you have to present to a group, you reflect on what you did and how it could be replicated,” she said. “I think that reflection is a part of education. If we don’t look to see what we’re doing that’s working well, how are we to advance? The next logical step is sharing.”

When asked what her best advice would be for other schools looking to replicate Wahkiakum’s efforts, Haberlach had a simple suggestion.

“Be brave and be bold,” she said. “The changes that we’ve made have been pretty substantial. It was very spontaneous but we were all behind it. It worked and it was powerful and the kids bought in. If you have a staff that thinks of education as a team sport and everyone’s got their role, you jump in and do your role with your whole heart and soul, pretty amazing things can happen.”

UW GEAR UP EDI Summer Institute – Wahkiakum High School Presentation (Click on photos to enlarge.)

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Photos by Long Dinh