Band director Joe Ferguson beats out the rhythm with a drumstick and wooden block as the Washington High School marching band runs through Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
The kids at the Parkland school are working on their routine for the upcoming Daffodil Parade, hoping to become, in Ferguson’s words, “the band people remember.”
Suddenly he calls out: “Stop there. Watch!” He dips and dives, wielding the drumstick like a trombone.
“Bend over like that,” Ferguson coaches. “Point your horn to the ground. Then, back up.”
Flute player Taylor McCormick, nursing a wrist injury, sits out this rehearsal. She loves being part of the band and — by extension — feeling a connection to her school.
“He’s actually a really good teacher” McCormick says of Ferguson. “He doesn’t treat us like students. He treats us like family. He makes us part of this school.”
“At our school,” she says, quoting the school motto, “failure is not an option.”
It wasn’t always this way at Washington High, nor in the rest of the Franklin Pierce School District.
Once our kids walk across that stage (for graduation) at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in June, they need to be walking
Administrator Carolyn Treleven
Superintendent Frank Hewins says that when he joined the district in 2007, “we were struggling towards the bottom of the on-time graduation list.”
Yet earlier this month, the state superintendent’s office recognized the district — located just outside of Tacoma — for boosting the graduation rate among low-income students, who make up nearly three quarters of the district’s more than 7,600 students.
In 2015, more than 78.5 percent of the district’s low-income students graduated on time, in four years. That’s just above the state average of 78.1 percent for all students, and inching close to the overall district rate of 82.7 percent.
The district also is closing the graduation gap for students of color, with 2015 graduation rates for Native American, African-American and Latino students meeting or beating state averages for those groups.
What’s behind the success? Carolyn Treleven, the district’s director for teaching and learning, sums it up this way: “Gentle pressure, relentlessly applied, with intentional support.”
She points to a combination of approaches: teaching study skills, increasing the number of challenging AP (Advanced Placement) classes, giving kids more chances to succeed.
Under the district’s standards-based grading system, students must show an understanding of all the foundational skills taught in a class to receive credit.
Those who can’t demonstrate all required skills receive a grade of “incomplete,” instead of a failure, and keep working until they can show mastery. They meet with teachers to create a plan for relearning concepts they missed and retesting their knowledge in those areas.
The district employs a dropout “early warning system” that signals when kids are in trouble with attendance, behavior or course work so teachers and counselors can intervene.
It made counseling a key focus to help students plot career paths, and shepherd kids who often are the first in their families to consider college through the maze of admissions procedures.
“Once our kids walk across that stage (for graduation) at the Puyallup Fairgrounds in June, they need to be walking to somewhere, ” Treleven says.
We celebrate everything. We magnify it.
Washington High School Principal James Hester
In 2007, Washington High had the dubious distinction of being placed on a list of so-called “dropout factories,” one of 1,700 schools in the nation to earn the label.
Not long before, a survey had asked students if they were proud of their school. Only 36 percent said they were.
The criticisms stung.
“You can get some stuff done when you’re angry. I took it personally,” says Principal James Hester, a 1988 alumnus of Washington High. “But it was also a wake-up call. It really focused our school. We wanted to see more of our kids be successful.”
He and the staff at Washington High recognized that building the school’s culture and climate would be as important as boosting its academics.
The school embarked on a cleanliness campaign. Soon, Washington High students were getting kudos from other schools at sports events, as Patriots fans made it a point to clean up the bleachers when games ended.
Fund-raising booster parents and other supporters bought instruments and sheet music. That helped grow the once-anemic band program to include 90 students — nearly 10 percent of the school’s 950-student population. More than 100 students take part in Air Force Junior ROTC.
“We get kids involved in leadership” Hester says. “We celebrate everything. We magnify it.”
I am the first generation in my family to go to college. I want to make my parents proud.
Student Melissa Escobedo
At Franklin Pierce High School, the district’s other comprehensive high school in Midland, counselors seize every opportunity to spread the college gospel. During the NCAA March Madness basketball tournaments, the guidance office has been highlighting tournament colleges’ academic offerings.
Students can take advantage of a multitude of online resources that guide them through choices for careers and colleges — as well as scholarship applications.
“There are so many options,” counselor Laura Conklin says. “We figure out how to help students navigate that system.”
Franklin Pierce High senior Kira Brist always knew she wanted to attend college. But she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study or how she would get there.
“Through my advisers, I learned how to find the career that interested me,” she says.
As a junior, she took an AP psychology course — “the best class I’ve ever taken” — and earned the maximum score on the AP psychology test. That means she likely will earn some college credit in the subject even before she arrives on a college campus.
Her academic adviser is guiding her through the college application process with an eye toward a career in psychology.
Melissa Escobedo, a junior at Franklin Pierce High, is like many students in the district.
“I am the first generation in my family to go to college,” says the daughter of immigrants. “I want to make my parents proud.”
She hopes for a career in either medicine or education. She’s active in her school’s National Honor Society, Latino Club, cheer squad and sports.
“Being able to be part of the school and getting involved in school helped me open myself up and meet new people,” Escobedo says.
She’s taken five AP classes so far, earning A’s and B’s.
“That makes me feel confident about my success in college,” she adds.
We really care about you.
GATES Principal Valinda Jones
The third ingredient in the district’s high school portfolio is a pair of alternative programs designed to reach students who don’t succeed at either of the district’s comprehensive high schools.
GATES (Greater Alternatives to Educating Students) is a small school of about 150 students that breaks learning into smaller segments to helps students who are behind in their studies catch up.
In the other program, New Pathways, students attend school fewer hours per week, but can access online course work outside of the school setting.
Both programs have been in operation for several decades, but Principal Valinda Jones says graduation rates have climbed, from 27 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in 2015.
In years past, many students failed to move on to college. But Jones says that’s changing, too.
GATES students are on campus five days a week. The school breaks classes into shorter terms — more like college quarters than traditional high school semesters — and offers small class sizes.
Students complete an orientation before enrolling that includes a visit to a local college campus.
Jones says attendance is one of the biggest challenges in any alternative high school, where students might be caring for children of their own, working or living independently from their parents.
If students miss too much class time, GATES staff members try to track them down. A case manager helps homeless students get services and helps distribute food and toiletries to students in need.
“I’ve gone on a fair number of home visits myself,” Jones says.
The message she wants students to hear: “We really care about you.”