Public vs. private college prep in Walla Walla

Talia Rudee

Advanced Placement classes, PSATs and college fairs all contributed to the average Whitman student’s preparation for applying to and ultimately attending this challenging school. Regardless of a public or private background, Whitman students prepared for college by taking demanding classes.

Sophomore Sean Williams attended DeSales High School in Walla Walla prior to beginning his Whitman education and noted a difference in workload between his high school experience and now.

“Light days were few and far between,” said Williams. “Whitman is easier in a sense.”

Since DeSales is such a small private school, it puts an emphasis on matriculating students attending four-year colleges.

“It is assumed that you are going on to a four-year college,” said Williams. “Compared to some of my friends at public school, the [large] homework load was consistent.”

DeSales makes valuable resources available to students in addition to the school’s homework load, including College Goal Sunday, which helps students access what they need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as well as presenting the opportunity for students to take college classes at Whitman College.

“We are grateful for the connection we have made with Whitman College,” said Kathy Ruthven, the DeSales counselor. “The groundwork that is laid when kids from high school take college classes can be really fruitful.”

As an additional resource, Ruthven tries hard to prepare the students with very individualized attention beginning in eighth grade.

“When [the students] start their senior year, I’m going to meet with each of the seniors for a good hour and start their year with their goals regarding college and make some plans for what we will do throughout the school year to orient them for what the process is,” said Ruthven.

But the college prep truly starts way back when the students are in middle school. Eighth graders at DeSales take a pre-ACT exam called the Explorer test. After taking the test, each student will meet with Ruthven individually with his or her parents and come up with a four-year plan for high school referencing the Explorer test’s scores.

“I have that luxury of having 28 seniors as opposed to 400,” said Ruthven in reference to the difference between DeSales and Walla Walla High School.

She is able to meet with each student and their families individually, setting out a four-year plan when they are freshmen and lending even more attention to the students during their senior year, meeting with each student for a good hour.

Although Walla Walla High School certainly does not have the intimate advantage of student and college counseling sessions, the school produces high-achieving students.

Senior Ryan Campeau is a native Walla Wallan who attended high school at Walla Walla High and continued to thrive at Whitman. Campeau ensured her college preparedness by self-selecting college prep courses that the school had to offer.

“I do remember freshman year that I was prepared for the workload in college and the type of studying and essay writing, so I was really thankful that I took so many AP classes,” said Campeau.

Although both DeSales and Walla Walla High offer competitive academic programs, Williams and Campeau both felt that their college counseling could be improved.

Williams said he remembered a large emphasis placed on schools such as Gonzaga, Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College, where he noted most people ended up. He felt this reflected a lack of involvement on the part of the counselors.

“College prep could improve for sure; there are more options out there,” said Williams.

Campeau’s experience at Walla Walla High School was similar to Williams’, recognizing room to expand and build on current college preparation within the counseling department.

“Counselors are available, but my experience with my high school counselor was very poor,” said Campeau.

Campeau had a “genius” friend who applied to many top-notch schools, such as Stanford and Harvard. One of the counselors did not support her choices of schools to apply to, encouraging the student to only apply to Washington State University. Her main emphasis was that there would probably be a full scholarship available.

“We were all shocked that was her suggestion––she was deterring her from reaching higher,” said Campeau.

Still, Campeau recognizes the school’s efforts to improve the counseling.

“They are trying to broaden what they can offer,” said Campeau.

Walla Walla High School administrators could not be reached for comment. The school does offer many AP classes, as Campeau took four classes of seven as AP in one year.

However, there is a huge dichotomy between the AP and the regular classes in terms of their ability to prepare students for college.

“I do recognize that the extra benefit did come from being in AP classes,” said Campeau.

One semester, Campeau was required to take a regular-level government class that was required for all senior students.

“I remember being really shocked by the teacher’s expectations of us, our workload and the student’s activity in the classroom of not being engaged, not caring,” said Campeau.

Although this reflected the norm of non-AP students to Campeau, Walla Walla High School does actively try to engage all students in a pre-college mindset.

An example of this drive is a program called AVID, where 30 students who are identified as being “at risk” are selected for special attention. This, however, is only available to 30 students from a 2,000-student school and cannot provide direct help to everyone who may be at risk of not graduating and not attending college. Success for the rest of the student population becomes a matter of personal initiative.

Keith Farrington, professor of sociology at Whitman as well as a parent of former high school students at Walla Walla High School, reflected on the preparedness the high school had for his children, especially seeing the great achievements of one of his daughters after she graduated from an undergraduate experience at Emory University.

“Jane’s [Farrington’s oldest daughter] success at Wa-Hi may have been in some measure determined by who she is internally and constitutionally as well as by the positive environment to which she was exposed in high school,” said Farrington.

“She is extraordinary, a go-getter with great work habits,” said Farrington. “The high school provided a really great environment for her to reach her potential.”

Jane graduated with honors from Emory, attending Stanford University for a law degree, and is currently in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.

“A big part was that she had a teacher who really ingrained in her a love of language and the origin of words,” said Farrington.

Farrington emphasized the exceptional teachers such as Jane’s language teacher and excellent math teachers who prepared her for required academic challenges in college, such as a required rigorous mathematics camp at Princeton.

Despite all of his daughter’s achievements, Farrington still did not recognize the help of a school counselor.

In addition to students’ and parents’ reactions to the amount of preparation at the Walla Walla high schools, superintendent Mick Miller commented on the overall system.

“For students that are interested in attending a four-year college, we do a really good job in terms of college preparation. Most students in college preparation courses are very prepared,” said Miller.

Miller does, however, recognize room for improvement.

“We need to work on getting more students interested in attending four-year colleges,” said Miller. “We also need to make sure to make it clear that there are significant job opportunities by attending two-year technical colleges––keep the options open.”