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Originally published September 22, 2012 at 7:33 PM | Page modified September 23, 2012 at 6:18 PM

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In Kent, the path to college begins in elementary school

South King County schools have launched a series of programs aimed at getting students as early as kindergarten to start thinking about college after high-school graduation. One principal says he's already seeing some success.

Seattle Times higher-education reporter

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Well, I hope they are also promoting vocational programs... you know, an education that... MORE
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The oldest students at Scenic Hill Elementary won't be ready to go to college for another seven years. The youngest, not for 12 years.

But every Monday, students and teachers at this Kent school wear college-logo T-shirts to school — Huskies and Cougars, Ducks and Bruins — 28 schools in all. The hallways ring with verses from college fight songs, and classrooms are festooned with more pennants than a university dorm room.

If it seems like they're starting early, consider: In South King County, only about 54 percent of high-school graduates enroll in college or some form of postsecondary education.

So the educators at Scenic Hill, where 90 percent of the students are on free- and reduced-price lunch, want children to think about college from the moment they start elementary school, to inspire them to take their education as far as they can.

It's part of a larger, regionwide effort in South King County schools to get students to take rigorous classes, sign up for financial-aid and college-scholarship programs, and make plans to continue their education after they graduate.

The region's low college-going rate is not an outlier — it's true throughout Washington. But the efforts by these districts to get students to go to college is unusual.

The alternative? Kent Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas puts it in these terms:

"I believe a high-school diploma by itself, without some kind of advanced training, is the pathway to poverty."

Partnership formed

If the number of South King County students who enroll in college is low, the number of students who complete college is worse: Only about a quarter earn a two- or four-year college degree, or career credential.

For black, Hispanic and Native American students in South King County, the number is lower still — about 11 percent.

Some of those students will eventually make it to college, or some form of vocational training, in their 20s or 30s. But the intervening years often represent a decade lost to low-wage jobs.

Two years ago, seven school districts formed the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) — a partnership of area schools — to address the region's failure to send kids to college.

Each district is grappling with the problem in its own way.

Kent offers free, full-day kindergarten to every student. And as a gesture to the importance of higher education, every kindergartner takes a field trip to a local four-year or community college.

Scenic Hill Elementary has taken the college connection one step further, inspired by the work of California educator Damen Lopez and his "No Excuses University," a book and project that encourages all students to aim for college. Every classroom has adopted a college, and students and teachers wear that school's colors once a week.

The school also offers a "parent university," offering parents basic math, English language and technology classes. That gives teachers an opportunity to talk to parents about sending their kids to college, too.

"After high school comes college," said Principal Dani Pfeiffer, echoing the theme of the project. "No exceptions, no excuses."

It's too early to know how successful it will be; Scenic Hill only adopted the strategy two years ago, and its students won't be applying for college for years.

But skip across the city to Kent-Meridian High School, where Principal Wade Barringer is starting to see change. In 2007, when Barringer became principal at Kent-Meridian, just 35 percent of the school's graduates went on to some kind of postsecondary training. Last year, it was 60 percent.

What has made the difference? "We're trying to get kids to believe in themselves," Barringer said.

He doesn't look like a touchy-feely guy. He's got the solid build of a college athlete and the tough demeanor of a coach (in fact, he was both — he threw the discus and javelin for the Washington State University track team, and later coached several high-school sports).

But along with increasing the rigor of high-school classes, and being tough and demanding on his students, Barringer also thinks a key part of his job is inspiration. Sixty-six percent of his students come from broken homes, and "we might be the only adults who give them that care and attention," he said.

Support system

Helping students believe they are capable of good work, and creating a school system that supports them as they do that work, is a cornerstone of all the best education models — "whether you use the terms 'believe in kids' or 'you have to have high expectations for all students,' " said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of CCER.

Kent-Meridian offers the rigorous, college-level International Baccalaureate program, and the number of students participating is climbing. Students who enroll in IB have the option to take end-of-course exams for possible college credit, and the number of students who take those exams is viewed as a signal of how hard they worked and how seriously they took the subjects.

In 2007, students took 104 IB exams; last year, they took 249 exams. Thirty percent of juniors, and 27 percent of seniors, took at least one IB class in 2011.

And this year, Kent-Meridian is enlisting extra help from University of Washington students, who are holding regular, five-day-a-week office hours in the school as part of an intensive mentorship program, the Dream Project. The mentors help prep high-schoolers on the SAT or ACT college-entrance exams, then help them fill out college applications and apply for public and private scholarship money.

Kent uses a wide range of other methods to boost student achievement, including interventions when students fall behind. It has boosted the number of teachers certified to teach English Language Learners by offering in-house training. It is tackling the digital divide by giving every student in grades 7 through 10 a laptop computer, funded through a tech levy that passed in 2010.

It is installing 10 computer kiosks in community centers, banks and apartment buildings, loading them up with district materials translated into multiple languages, then using those same kiosks to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal so students can use their laptops to log on.

The district has paid for the programs by leveraging partnerships with community groups. And it has cut some programs to support others, such as full-day kindergarten.

On a regional scale, CCER has seized upon a 5-year-old state program, College Bound, that promises to pay public-school tuition for low-income students who stay out of trouble and graduate with a C average. Last year, nearly 90 percent of eligible eighth-graders signed up in the seven districts — more than 5,000 students.

CCER also plans to sponsor events all year to help students apply for college and financial aid. And it's looking at ways to encourage students to take more demanding courses throughout high school, including four years of math, Ryan said.

The work is urgent, she said, because a recent Georgetown University study projected that by 2018, 67 percent of the state's job openings will require postsecondary training.

Diversity on display

The South King County districts covered by CCER are Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Renton, Tukwila and the southern portion of the Seattle School District. They are a study in diversity: 60 percent of students are minorities, 54 percent are low-income, 17 percent speak a language other than English at home (167 different languages, to be exact).

In between classes at Kent-Meridian, the hallways are rich with the sounds of foreign tongues: Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Somali, Punjabi. There are girls wearing hijabs, boys wearing turbans.

Barringer says his students wear a tough exterior that belies their vulnerability. Some students are working, holding down jobs to support their families. They may have the academic chops to do well at a four-year university, but even those who are qualified often choose to stay closer to home, going to community college and working part time.

Elisa Aguayo, a graduate of Kent-Meridian High, is a junior at the UW and a member of the UW's Dream Project. She is the first in her family to go to college.

"I loved school growing up," Aguayo said. But her friends? "My friends would say they weren't going to college because it wasn't in their plans," she said. "As much as I tried to tell them they could change (plans), they'd rather work than get an education."

That's why Pfeiffer, the Scenic Hill principal, wants to instill in her young students — and their parents — the idea that college is at the end of every path after high school. She believes it is the way out of poverty.

"Regardless of the challenges," she said, "we want to make them dream of college as a possibility."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong.

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