Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. The full series can be found at chronline.com/schools.
When the Chehalis School District began developing the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI) in 2013 to respond to changing social and economic needs of the Chehalis community, the district had a goal of increasing the percentage of W.F. West High School students who go on to earn college degrees and certifications from 20% to 60%, beginning with the graduating class of 2022.
The Chehalis Foundation, a nonprofit supporting Chehalis, has been working with the Chehalis School District for a decade to help achieve the goals of the SAI. With support from W.F. West alumni such as James Lintott and Orin Smith, the former CEO of Starbucks who passed away from cancer in 2018, the Chehalis Foundation has been able to assist the Chehalis School District in improving student performance.
“There’s nothing more important than education,” said Kevin Smith, the younger brother of Orin Smith, while discussing his family’s support for the Chehalis Foundation and the SAI.
For those in the Chehalis community who have supported the SAI through donations to the Chehalis Foundation, seeing the progress made in the district has been rewarding.
“I’m so thrilled to be working with the Chehalis Foundation and with the Smiths, and it gave me one of the great pleasures of my life to have been involved with this,” Lintott said.
Among the ways the Chehalis Foundation has provided support to the Chehalis School District has been through hiring the Baker Evaluation Research Consulting (BERC) Group to work with the district. According to Duane Baker, the head of the BERC Group, the relationship between the school district and the Chehalis Foundation is unique.
“In this case, there’s a pretty special relationship between the foundation and the district. … It seemed pretty clear from the beginning the foundation wanted to come along as a partner,” Baker said.
According to Kevin Smith, after studying the results of the BERC Group’s first report on the Chehalis School District, the SAI was launched to help the district improve student outcomes and help each of them earn a credential that allows them to earn an income large enough to support a family.
“Orin and myself and J. (Vander Stoep) were really the beginning of the SAI … We didn’t create it, but we were there really right out of the gate. After the first (BERC) study, we kind of created the tagline ‘SAI,’” Kevin Smith said.
After partnering with the BERC Group, the district began incorporating teaching methods that encouraged students to play a more active role in the classroom.
“I thought it was amazing that they were able to identify the problem with teaching and learning,” said Lintott, a wealth management adviser who graduated from W.F. West High School who is a major donor to the Chehalis Foundation, discussing the recommendations the BERC Group made to the district.
After observing Chehalis teachers in the classroom, Baker recommended the district encourage students to discuss what they were learning in the classroom, advocating for students to talk to one another and ask questions.
“We do a lot of turn and talk, partner share. We encourage (the students) to ask and answer questions with each other as opposed to just student to teacher interaction. We promote student to student interactions,” said Leslie Pagel, a first grade teacher at James W. Lintott Elementary School in Chehalis. “There are times where I think of myself far more as a facilitator as opposed to a teacher in the room, and I’ve heard other staff say the same thing.”
In addition to changes in teaching methods, the district has also promoted science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and career technical education (CTE), which have been central to the SAI’s goals. Indeed, STEM served as a catalyst for the SAI.
According to Chehalis School Board member J. Vander Stoep, the Chehalis Foundation first became involved in supporting the Chehalis School District through STEM, which he said has been a “big focus” of the district for many years. As time went on, Vander Stoep said the focus on STEM grew to include CTE.
But while changes to teaching methods and an emphasis on STEM and CTE have been used in the classroom to improve student performance and move the Chehalis School District closer to achieving the goals of the SAI, the district, in partnership with the Chehalis Foundation, has also begun using the unique method providing giving support to students even after they’ve graduated from W.F. West High School.
“School districts are focused on getting kids their cap and gown,” Vander Stoep said. “The foundation-school district partnership has changed that.”
One of the primary ways the district and foundation have sought to support students after they graduate from W.F. West has been through a partnership with Centralia College.
“They’ve been really savvy as a partnership, meeting between foundation, Centralia College, and school district,” Baker said. “I don’t think we had seen a college in the state work so well with a local school district. … They have amazing leadership at the college and they’re all in on supporting.”
For Kevin Smith, the Chehalis School District’s partnership with Centralia College is particularly important.
“To get the data we want to achieve, we have to work with Centralia College,” Kevin Smith said.
One of the main ways the district and foundation have partnered together in working with Centralia College has been through hiring someone to work at the college dedicated solely to helping W.F. West High School graduates. In 2018, Oscar Escalante was hired to work exclusively with W.F. West High School graduates at Centralia College. While Escalante is officially an employee of Centralia College, his position is funded by the Chehalis Foundation.
“My job is to retain them … make sure they’re comfortable at the start,” Escalante told The Chronicle.
According to Escalante, his job consists of three phases. The first phase is developing connections between W.F. West High School and Centralia College. The second phase involves providing a summer bridge to Chehalis graduates during their first summer after graduation. The third phase of Escalante’s job is centered around providing guidance to W.F. West High School graduates enrolled at Centralia College.
Building connections between W.F. West High School and Centralia College is a multifaceted part of Escalante’s job. According to Escalante, the main purpose of that part of his job is so future W.F. West graduates attending Centralia College recognize him as a familiar face.
“I want to make them aware I’m a go-to person,” Escalante told The Chronicle.
One of the ways Escalante develops connections between the school and the college is through events. Escalante also said Centralia College makes several visits to W.F. West every year to connect with seniors.
Escalante also said W.F. West seniors come to the college for its Spring Fest mini-festival, where the Chehalis seniors get “red carpet” treatment to try and get them excited for college. During their visit, the seniors get to participate in Spring Fest activities.
Escalante said he works to make himself a familiar face to W.F. West High School students by being engaged through a variety of school activities. He participates in a mentorship program at W.F. West, helps judge culminating projects and has served as a business week judge. He’s also started advising at W.F. West with a mobile pop-up event, coordinating with the high school to get students their time slots.
Escalante’s work with students during their “summer bridge” transitional period is a second major part of his work. Escalante said the purpose of the summer bridge period is to acclimate the students to the campus and build a stronger rapport with them.
“I’m already a familiar face,” Escalante said, explaining how he builds on his prior work with high school students.
Another method Escalante cited to help W.F. West graduates the summer after their graduation is taking HR 101, a college course the Chehalis Foundation pays for.
During the course, which students can either take over the summer quarter or as a two-week intensive course right before the start of fall quarter, students learn skills to help them be successful during college while also learning information about Centralia College. Students who take HR 101 are more likely to be successful in college and have a higher retention rate. According to Escalante, students who participate in the summer bridge program have a retention rate of over 80%, compared to a retention rate of 40% to 60% for non-summer bridge students.
W.F. West graduates are also given the chance to participate in a variety of summer activities at the college, including a workshop on covering Centralia College basics, such as using the Canvas computer program often used by colleges for classwork, and a “Summer Sizzle” barbecue. According to Escalante, the Summer Sizzle event is an orientation-style lunch or dinner during which different departments give presentations on how to navigate processes of the college. The “Summer Sizzle” event also gives Escalante the chance to help students get items they’ll need for college, such as student identification cards and parking permits.
Escalante said the event provides an opportunity for the families of students to become involved in their education, which he said can be as important as parenting at the college level is different than at the high school level.
“It’s an opportunity for them to bring their parents and get buy-in from the whole family,” Escalante said.
Escalante uses the summer to meet individually with W.F. West graduates planning to attend Centralia College. Escalante told The Chronicle he will walk through the campus with students on an individual basis, showing them where their classes are located. During that time, he’ll also troubleshoot problems such as technology issues with students. He added he’ll also provide guidance to students for how to be successful in their classes, such as having good time management.
According to Escalante, the summer bridge program helps a large portion of the W.F. West graduates entering Centralia College. Last summer, Escalante said there were about 25 students who committed to participating in some part of the summer bridge program, or about one-third of the W.F. West graduates who enrolled at Centralia College in the fall.
Once W.F. West graduates have begun attending Centralia College, Escalante will also spend a large portion of his time developing relationships with the Chehalis students, providing them with guidance and support. Escalante said he does case management with students, reaching out to them regularly. Regular meetings with Chehalis students provide him with the chance to get updates on how they’re doing, he said.
By getting regular updates from students, Escalante is able to determine their risk level and determine how much support he needs to provide for them, with students with a higher risk level requiring more involvement. A student’s risk level can be determined by factors such as their GPA or the conversations they have with Escalante.
“I’m constantly looking for ways to add to their support system,” Escalante said.
The additional support Escalante might find for a Chehalis student can vary. Sometimes, Escalante might help a student develop a game plan for addressing their situation. Another solution might be for Escalante to set a student up with a mentor. He might also try to help a student find resources for housing or mental health.
“I help make those connections for them,” Escalante said.
Escalante told The Chronicle success might look different for each student. He said success might not always be passing a class; rather, it might sometimes be asking for help or taking time off of school. According to Escalante, building a strong relationship with students is important for him because even if a student leaves Centralia College, if they start considering coming back he can assist them in developing a plan for them to re-enroll.
“They feel comfortable doing that because they left on good terms,” Escalante said.
To help develop his relationships with Chehalis students, Escalante will interact with them regularly, even using incentives to increase engagement.
“I’m able to give a $40 Amazon gift card for a response … That’s definitely helped increase their responsiveness,” Escalante said.
He added he’s able to build strong relationships with students, at least in part, because he is exclusively focused on W.F. West graduates.
“I’m able to provide long sessions in a more comfortable way (than other advisers at Centralia College could),” Escalante said.
Escalante said being able to work exclusively with Chehalis students gives him the opportunity to help students with their individual needs more effectively and allows him to “orient them” in the right direction.
“My biggest north star with a student is helping them find their purpose,” Escalante said. “If I do that, they’re more likely to open up with me.”
Escalante said he’s proud to have the opportunity to guide students and help them succeed.
“It’s just an interesting thing to be a part of … I’m just honored to be part of that team,” Escalante said.
Escalante’s support for W.F. West graduates and the work of the Chehalis School District and Chehalis Foundation appear to have had a positive impact on Chehalis students at Centralia College. According to Escalante, in 2020, Centralia College had an overall six-year graduation rate of about 40%, compared to a graduation rate of 53% for W.F. West graduates. Additionally, Vander Stoep told The Chronicle that for students in W.F. West High School’s class of 2018, 56% of graduates that went to Centralia College had already earned a credential, compared to what Vander Stoep said were one-third of community college students statewide.
Kevin Smith said he was likewise proud of the partnership between the Chehalis School District, the Chehalis Foundation and Centralia College.
“I don’t think there’s any school districts in the state that have a relationship like we do with Centralia College,” Kevin Smith said.
While the district and foundation have provided support for Chehalis graduates attending Centralia College, they’ve also worked to support graduates who have gone elsewhere.
Becky Moon serves as a Student Achievement Initiative specialist, having recently been hired to work for both the school district and the Chehalis Foundation during the late spring of 2022. According to Moon, her position consists of many facets, including keeping track of students after graduation and helping them find resources they need.
Moon said her work keeping track of students involves following graduating cohorts for six years after they’ve left W.F. West, encouraging them to stay in school so they can earn a livable wage.
To help her keep track of students, Moon keeps a spreadsheet listing all W.F. West alumni who graduated in recent years. She regularly contacts graduates and keeps their status on the spreadsheet updated. Moon told The Chronicle she uses different colors to mark students on her spreadsheets based on their status. For example, when a name is marked blue, it means the graduate is currently enrolled in a school, while a different color indicates the student has earned a higher education credential.
The district considers keeping track of the status of W.F. West graduates to be a key part of achieving the goals of the SAI.
“We don’t want to be fooling ourselves or others,” Vander Stoep said.
In addition to the spreadsheet of alumni, Vander Stoep said the district uses a system called the National College Tracking System, which tracks graduates in college. However, Vander Stoep said the system doesn’t catch everything graduates do, specifically mentioning those who go into apprenticeships or who earn a one-year credential. One way the district seems to have been able to keep track of its students is through regular contact.
Moon said she reaches out to W.F. West graduates on a daily basis, asking them what they’re doing and finding out if they need any assistance. Moon said the number of times she’ll contact a graduate depends on an individual’s situation. While she’ll check in with some students once during the summer and won’t follow up again for a year, she’ll reach out to other students on a weekly basis.
When checking in with graduates, Moon said she’ll ask them how they’re doing. If a graduate is having issues she’ll try to help them, such as by providing assistance with scholarships, FAFSA, connecting them with educational or mental health resources. Moon looks for resources at an alumni’s educational institution to get them the support they need.
Moon said if she reaches out to a graduate who tells her they’re not currently enrolled at an educational institution, she’ll ask them if they’re interested in returning to school and look for solutions to any problems they may have had at their school. She also might encourage them to enter a trade or attend Centralia College. Moon added if there is a financial reason for them not being enrolled, she might try to find scholarships or aid for them. If the reason is grades or mental health, she’ll try and connect them with counseling or a college mental health specialist.
“I might research for them or turn their name over to an adviser at the college,” Moon said. “I have to be creative, and sometimes students will take a couple of hours.”
Moon told The Chronicle her goal for working with graduates is to have them complete a degree or enter a trade.
One project Moon has been working on to support W.F. West graduates more generally is the creation of a W.F. West alumni group website. The website, still being built, is expected to be released to the public in June or July. On the website, alumni will be able to create profiles and connect with one another. Seniors at W.F. West will also enter their information into the system prior to graduation so they’re already on the website when they leave.
“It’s kind of like a Facebook but for W.F. West alumni,” Moon said.
On the website, alumni will be able to network, post events and receive updates on what’s happening at W.F. West High School. Website users will also be able to search for alumni who are open to business connections.
School district staff told The Chronicle the purpose of the website is to build a stronger sense of community among W.F. West graduates.
“It’s about creating a family,” said Rick Goble, the director of student achievement for the Chehalis School District.
“Our overall goal is to create a big circle, a family, a community… to support each other,” Moon said.
The alumni website is being set up by the school district in partnership with the Chehalis Foundation. According to Moon, the original idea for the website came from foundation members who wanted to find a way to connect with alumni.
Moon said not many other high schools have an alumni network system like the one the Chehalis School District is building. She said the website is an example of the unique ways Chehalis supports its graduates and makes them feel like they’re a part of a community, something she’s experienced first-hand as the mother of W.F. West alumni.
“I’m so grateful to have raised my kids here. It’s so special. … It’s like a family,” Moon said.
For those who helped launch the SAI, providing support for W.F. West graduates is a key part of the effort to achieve the district’s goals. While the Chehalis School District and Chehalis Foundation have worked to change teaching methods, promote STEM and CTE, and address the problem of math education, perhaps the most unique aspect of the SAI has been Chehalis’ support for its alumni. While most other districts have viewed their role as ending with the graduation of their students, the Chehalis School District has given itself a broader objective. For Chehalis, the school district’s work doesn’t end with students throwing their graduation caps in the air. It continues as students move through the next phases of their lives.
Kevin Smith may have explained the larger responsibility the Chehalis School District has envisioned for itself the most succinctly.
“It’s not a K-12 effort,” Kevin Smith said. “It’s a K-14, K-16 effort.”
Achieving Success was the title of this series of stories focused on the Chehalis School District and its Student Achievement Initiative. Reporter Matthew Zylstra is a W.F. West High School graduate. The full series can be found at chronline.com/schools.