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AP courses
Spokane has used outside nonprofits to help its students search for and apply to colleges. In May, one organization, College Success Foundation, held a College Signing Night to celebrate 170 seniors who were bound for four-year schools. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

SPOKANE, Wash. — Principal Lori Wyborney and her three assistant principals were gathered around a table covered with papers and Popeyes takeout at John R. Rogers High School, two weeks before graduation last spring.

On the screen in front of them was a list of three dozen students administrators believed could succeed in an AP class. But the students were not yet scheduled to take one in the coming fall. One by one, the principals looked at each student’s profile, which included the student’s answers to district-wide survey questions about what worries them about AP classes, what subjects interest them and what adults they trust in the building.

Wyborney, sitting, as she often does while concentrating, with her elbows on the table and one hand absentmindedly raised to her mouth, kept up a running commentary. “Boy, she’s not taking much next year,” she said of one student before placing her in AP Digital Photography. Of another: “He’s looking at a four-year college. He has got to get into AP English.”

Over and over, she declared “I’m on it” as she scribbled down the names of students she planned to personally track down to talk to about scheduling changes.

The meeting was part of a broad effort across the district to decrease the gap between the number of high-income and low-income students who go to college. In Spokane, 48 percent of 2014 graduates who received free or reduced-price lunch — a typical indicator of poverty — went on to higher education the following year, compared to 65 percent of those who didn’t receive subsidized meals, according to state data. Nationally, 52 percent of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2014, compared to 81 percent of high-income students.

The district aims for all students not only to enroll in some sort of postsecondary school after high school — whether it’s a community college, a university, a liberal arts college or a vocational program — but also to stick it out at those schools until they earn a diploma.

Related: Can $10 million build the ideal high school?

To make sure students persist in college is a deeper task than the usual work of helping them make application deadlines and submit financial aid paperwork. Spokane’s educators have latched onto an idea that at first might seem counterintuitive: They believe they can get more students to go to college and stay there by making high school harder.

“For kids in poverty, more often than not, what they’re saying is, ‘I’m not a good student.’ What we have to do is convince them, ‘Well, actually, you are.’ ”

Spokane has eliminated all remedial classes, such as Outdoor Living, a science course that Wyborney described as “Camping 101.” College prep courses are now the default curriculum for all high school students, and the district has increased the number of AP courses it offers. Although students are only required to take three years of lab science and math to earn a diploma, they’re pushed to take four years of each — and most do.

“We’ve eliminated choices to the point where you really only have college-ready choices,” said Wyborney.

The strategy is inspired by federal research that has found that a high school’s “academic intensity … still counts more than anything else” it does to help its students go on to complete a bachelor’s degree.

AP courses
Rogers High School Principal Lori Wyborney and Marquise Roberson of Equal Opportunity Schools go through a list of students who aren’t enrolled in any AP courses, but might be able to handle the work. Credit: Sarah Butrymowicz

Rogers High School’s work is modeled off efforts by Steven Gering, Spokane’s chief innovation and research officer and a former principal at another Spokane school. During his tenure, North Central High School recorded the largest increase in the state in the percentage of students attending college after graduation, according to Gering’s analysis of state data.

But Rogers High, in an imposing building in the city’s poorest neighborhood, may be a tougher test for whether the idea can work with all students in this economically diverse city of roughly 200,000. About 78 percent of Rogers’ 1,500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and nearly a fifth receive special education services, according to state data.

Related: Most colleges enroll many students who aren’t prepared for higher education

Rogers has the lowest college-going rate in the district. But it has made the most improvement in the last five years, raising that rate from 43 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which the district has full data available. And it’s sending more low-income students to universities: 27 percent of its spring 2016 graduates who received free lunch enrolled in a four-year school in the fall, the highest proportion of any school in the district.

Nationally, 52 percent of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2014, compared to 81 percent of high-income students.

Wyborney took over the school in 2010, when it graduated about 60 percent of its students and was selected to participate in a federal school turnaround program. Her office is filled with reminders of her educational roots — Eastern Washington University sports team posters, portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, a nod to her days as a coach, athletic director and history teacher. She casually refers to students she meets as “girlfriend” and “buddy.” Walking the hallways, she greets staff and students most often with a touch on the arm and a joke.

But students also know she’s serious about making them work harder. When a counselor tells her that a student doesn’t want to take a science course in his senior year, Wyborney doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s not happening.”

Of the class of 2016 graduates, 87 percent had taken four years of lab science and nearly 90 percent had taken four years of math, Wyborney said. In the fall, 437 Rogers students were enrolled in AP courses, up from 372 the previous spring. The makeup of those classes nearly matched the socioeconomic and racial demographics of the school.

The harder classes don’t just prepare students academically. They help students visualize themselves at college, Wyborney said.

“For kids in poverty, more often than not, what they’re saying is, ‘I’m not a good student,’ ” she said. “What we have to do is convince them, ‘Well, actually, you are.’ ”

Related: The difference between being for college and ready for college

This school year, she has held multiple assemblies to explain why she and teachers are relentlessly pushing tougher schedules. She told students the statistics for their school’s zip code — a nearly 30 percent poverty rate and 17 percent unemployment rate — and explained how a good education can help break the cycle of poverty.

“We get the stigma that we’re not much when it comes to education, and I think those AP classes really help. It helps us see we’re just as good as everyone else.”

Destiny Roupe entered high school five years ago assuming her family wouldn’t be able to afford college. But her teachers and principal wouldn’t stop talking about it.

“It was the way she talked to us, like we actually had a chance,” she said of Wyborney. “There wasn’t any doubt in her voice. For a while that shocked me. You could just feel the genuine hope for us to get out of where we are.”

The “hype” surrounding AP classes, which, nationally, tend to serve wealthy students, ultimately convinced Roupe that college was an option for her; she took eight of them before graduating in 2016 and going on to the University of Washington to study political science.

“We get the stigma that we’re not much when it comes to education, and I think those AP classes really help,” she said. “It helps us see we’re just as good as everyone else.”

The data on the benefits of enrolling in AP courses is not conclusive. Studies, including some paid for by the College Board, the organization that runs the AP program, have found that students who pass an AP exam do better in college. Other research has questioned whether AP classes have any significant benefits compared to honors courses.

Related: A solution as obvious as it is rare: Making high school graduates ready for college

Wyborney and Gering say that there are benefits even if a student fails an AP exam (the district pays for the tests for students who can’t afford it): They learn the skills they need to succeed in college, such as note-taking, time management and how to form study groups.

“For us, it’s more about the skill-building than it is about the content,” said Wyborney.

Spokane is updating its entire K-12 curriculum to teach those kinds of skills. Not only will students in its early grades do more research and weekly writing, they’ll start to learn good studying, note-taking and organizing strategies in fourth grade.

Roupe said she felt well-equipped to tackle an English course in her first semester of college. “Being able to have a discussion about … books is a lot of what I did in high school,” she said. “I didn’t feel overwhelmed.”

As proud as they are of successful students like Roupe, administrators remain acutely aware of how far they have to go. On a snowy day in February, Wyborny and her administrative team gathered for a weekly meeting at Rogers around bags of chips and jars of salsa.

Wyborny handed out graduation-rate statistics from around the district. Rogers had hit a high of 82 percent in 2016. But her enthusiasm was restrained. “Just stats to look at my little love bugs,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out 18 percent of the kids though, I tell you.”

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