High graduation rate wins Wa-Hi state recognition

Rachel Alexander

Walla Walla High School was one of 48 schools in the state to receive a 2011 Achievement Award for having a high extended graduation rate. Achievement Awards are given by the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and they honor schools which perform well in each category of the state’s High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), as well as those with accomplishments in other areas. This is the second year that Wa-Hi has been honored; last year, they were recognized for closing the achievement gap.

Credit: cade beck

“I was very excited for our staff and students to be honored with this award,” said Wa-Hi Principal Pete Peterson in an email.

Wa-Hi’s extended graduation rate is 97 percent, which is significantly higher than the state average of 82.7 percent. It is also higher than neighboring 4A schools such as Richland, Pasco and Yakima High Schools, which have extended graduation rates of 88 percent, 79 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

These numbers are no accident. They represent a district-wide effort to provide academic support and career and college guidance for students. Rather than simply making sure that students finish high school, Wa-Hi works to ensure that students have post-graduation plans.

“Across our system, staff are delivering the message that when you get  through  high school, you will leave career or college ready,” said Peterson.

As part of this, seniors are required to give a senior presentation highlighting their post-high school goals and the steps they’ve taken towards realizing them.

Wa-Hi also allows student to take classes in a variety of technical fields, such as veterinary medicine, computer-aided drafting and business law. Claircy Boggess, the career information specialist at Wa-Hi, said that the variety of practical courses offered by the school help expose students to possible careers.

“There’s a wealth of skill exploration they can do,” she said.

Complementing the job skills offered in class are a number of educational programs which help keep students on track academically and prepare them to attend college. Among these is Response to Intervention (RTI), a program targeting students who are performing below grade level in core skills, such as reading. RTI students don’t meet the criteria for special education, but also need more help than regular classes can provide.

“[RTI] becomes a more targeted type of instruction that helps that in-between student,” said Superintendent Mick Miller.

By allowing students to receive more individualized attention with specially trained staff, RTI helps keep students on track who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

“That’s really helped kids become more successful,” said Miller.

College preparatory programs have also played a role in Wa-Hi’s academic success. The school currently receives three grants for GEAR-UP, a U.S. Department of Education program which supports low-income students who want to attend college. GEAR-UP begins in seventh grade and supports a cohort to students through graduation, allowing the program to focus on early interventions for students who may have difficulties attending college.

Wa-Hi also has an Achievement via Individual Determination (AVID) program in place, targeting first-generation college students. Similar to GEAR-UP, AVID tracks a cohort of students from middle school through high school graduation. Peterson said that the school employs two Intervention Specialists, who help to identify at-risk students who might benefit from the program.

Whitman first-year José Beleche participated in AVID at Wa-Hi, and said that the program was critical to his success in school.

“Without AVID, it would be really hard for me to be here at Whitman,” he said.

Credit: cade beck

Beleche was part of the first cohort of AVID students at Wa-Hi. The program began his sophomore year, focusing on life skills such as studying well and organizing time. Beyond instruction, Beleche benefited from the environment created by the program.

“Within the first month, we became really close to the people that were in the class,” he said.

Beleche emphasized the role that Wa-Hi staff play in student success, saying that he could always count on his teachers for help.

“The staff’s really great. They really know how to sit down and talk to you,” he said. “Any problems you had, you could go to them.”

Miller also believed that staff play a critical role in helping Wa-Hi maintain its high graduation rates. He mentioned that some teachers are willing to teach high-level AP courses back to back with RTI. For him, this is a sign of their dedication.

“We have some pretty cool teachers,” he said.