Success of Chehalis School District’s Student Achievement Initiative Highlighted in State Panel

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Existing partnerships between school districts and their local postsecondary institutions lead to remarkable work in Washington state, supporting students, increasing postsecondary enrollment and closing equity gaps.
A state panel discussed those outcomes and pointed to the Chehalis School District’s Student Achievement Initiative as a shining example.
But the district’s “superhero model,” as Washington state Student Achievement Council (WSAC) member Jeff Charbonneau called the dedicated community support backing the district, isn’t a model the state can depend on for widespread student success.
“If we really are going to be about systemic change, then we really need to make sure that we get the full system,” Charbonneau said. “The superhero model doesn’t get everybody all the time. You’ve got to be where the superhero is, right?”
The Chehalis School District’s Student Achievement Initiative (SAI), which includes a partnership between the Chehalis School District and Centralia College, has been supported by the community’s “superhero,” the Chehalis Foundation, since its inception in 2013.
The initiative is now well on its way toward meeting its goal of increasing the percentage of Chehalis School District graduates going on to earn certifications or college degrees from 20% in 2013 to 60% starting with the graduating class of 2022, according to Chehalis School District Superintendent Christine Moloney.
The Chehalis School District SAI was highlighted alongside Graduate Tacoma and Seattle Promise during a panel discussion at a recent WSAC meeting as a successful existing partnership that could help inform WSAC’s future policy work and advocacy.
“We were very intentional about our collaboration,” Moloney said of the district’s work with Centralia College. “We set goals together, some focused specifically at the college level, some focused specifically at the high school level, and we reviewed our student progress to ensure that whatever decisions we made, that they were data-driven decisions and data-informed for each one of us.”
In terms of equity, the initiative has helped increase enrollment of students of color at Centralia College, said President Bob Mohrbacher, citing an 11% enrollment gap for students of color in 2017 that had disappeared by the class of 2020, with students of color enrolled at an 8% higher rate than caucasian students that year.
“We’ve made a lot of progress there. We still have gaps at Centralia College for college completion for students of color, but our Chehalis students are doing better than students as a whole,” Mohrbacher said.
With roughly 50% of Chehalis students at a poverty level that qualifies them for free or reduced lunches, the initiative partners are currently working on strategies to increase postsecondary enrollment and retention of those students.
Right now, that strategy is focused around working with parents.
“We think that is particularly going to be key in getting free and reduced lunch students up to similar levels of college enrollment,” Mohrbacher said. “So we’re looking at financial incentives for parents, looking at how we integrate parents into the summer program, looking at high school parents to engage students earlier and often so they understand what’s going on with college enrollment so they know that we’re working together with them on this.”
Financial incentives such as bookstore credits for students have also been key in helping students stick with their post-secondary plans, Mohrbacher said.
Initiative partners have shifted from the philosophy of making it easier for students to enroll in post-secondary programs to making it inconvenient for them not to.
Instead of removing barriers for students to enroll on their own, W.F. West High School students are automatically admitted to Centralia College and can apply to other schools depending on their own interests. Fall registration happens during class at W.F. West, with Centralia College staff on hand to talk to students about their specific plans and help them solve problems.
“We’re making them change from opting in to opting out,” Mohrbacher said.
Individual staff members at W.F. West and Centralia College have been crucial to the success of the initiative — specifically a college prep adviser at W.F. West who works one-on-one with seniors to help them figure out their post-graduate plans, a retention specialist at Centralia College who helps students navigate college once the semester starts and a “summer mill” prevention specialist who works with students the summer between high school graduation in the spring and the start of fall programs to ensure they follow through with their postgraduate plans.
New this year is a freshman transition counselor at W.F. West who helps students navigate the transition from junior- to senior-high.
That one-on-one attention to students throughout their high school and post-secondary programs has been a key aspect of the program’s success, Mohrbacher said.
“It’s not just a handoff. We’re reaching down into the high school and middle school and they’re following up into their college career to see how they’re succeeding,” he said.
Half of the funding for each of those staff positions comes from the Chehalis Foundation.
“We would struggle or just not be able to afford the staff we have that supports our vision of every student with a post-secondary degree or credential if we did not have that support,” Moloney said.
In total, the Chehalis School District receives $400,000 a year from the Chehalis Foundation for the Chehalis SAI and Centralia College receives an additional $200,000 a year.
In addition to providing funding, the Chehalis Foundation works closely with both the Chehalis School District and Centralia College to evaluate the results of the initiative and help with future strategies to improve the program.
“It really is because they are a community foundation and they want the students in their community to succeed and so they’re very invested in that,” Mohrbacher said.
The Chehalis School District is just one of 13 school districts within Centralia College’s service area, Mohrbacher said. And many of them don’t have an organization like the Chehalis Foundation supporting them.
“They’re never going to have the resources on their own to do that so we’re going to have to figure out a consortium approach to put those high schools together to get them the resources that they need,” Mohrbacher said.
The other two programs highlighted at the Nov. 9 WSAC meeting, Graduate Tacoma and Promise Seattle, also receive significant funding and support from their communities. Graduate Tacoma partners with the Tacoma Foundation, and Promise Seattle is funded by a levy Seattle’s voters passed in 2018.
“I think these partnerships are amazing and fantastic,” Charbonneau said. “So what I’m looking for is ways to either get those consortiums or to get other resources for those communities that don’t have large community-based organizations to back them up.”
To help provide those resources to other communities, WSAC is asking the state Legislature for money in the upcoming session to establish a competitive grant program to support partnerships between school districts and post-secondary institutions.
The grant program, which would be called the Career and College Pathways grant, would support regional, partnership-based programs aimed towards increasing enrollment and equity at post-secondary institutions.
The Legislature will consider the funding request during the upcoming 2022 legislative session.