Read the related Seattle Times article, The revival of Foster High School.


Last week’s release of statewide achievement data shows significant jumps in the graduation rate at Foster High School, with increases of almost 15 percentage points overall and more than 30 percentage points for Hispanic and Special Education students.

Graduation2“I am incredibly proud of our Foster students and educators,” said Superintendent Nancy Coogan. “A diploma is the gateway to the future, and it takes great perseverance, resiliency, and self-motivation for many of our students to make it to graduation.”

While the graduation spike is due to a long list of intentional shifts in Foster’s instruction and expectations, Principal Pat Larson points to the top of the white board in her office where “Priorities = Kids + Teachers” is front and center.

“That’s it, right there,” she said. “Every kid has a reason for being here, and it’s our job to say, ‘Okay, how can we help you?’ It’s our job to say, ‘We believe in you,’ and to keep saying ‘Yes, you can—yes, you can!’—whenever they hit a roadblock.”

Yes, you can. These words are visible throughout Foster, in morning announcements, and in presentations. Most importantly, the mantra is beginning to become engrained in students’ minds. As one of the most diverse high schools in the nation, the majority of Foster’s students come from backgrounds—refugee camps, poverty, marginalization—that can create formidable self-doubt.

During a recent visit from the state’s House Education Committee, a panel of Foster students shared their hopes for the future as well as their daunting challenges: Parents detained by immigration authorities, homelessness, no experience or assistance at home regarding college because, for many students, they are the first to even graduate high school …

Senior Eyerusalem Mesele summed up their feelings: “We want and seek all the same opportunities as other high-school students, but we are under-resourced,” she said.

What does “Yes, you can!” look like in action? After an already long day of teaching and problem-solving, every educator regularly comes together to handwrite postcards to mail home to individual students praising successes, big or small. Staff often scramble to help students overcome the basics of survival: Food when it runs out at home, shelter to prevent families from going homeless, warm clothes in the winter, and support for social/emotional issues—rooted in trauma—when daily struggles prove too much. Civics teachers organize on-site forums with city leaders, police, and political candidates to make sure students understand the power of their voice in the local community. Students are connected with (often diverse) mentors in the professional community, who help them understand the path they can take to have a successful career.  And, always, staff members seek to understand what is happening in each student’s life, and they ask them to envision a bigger future.

Larson spoke about a recent interaction with a student who expected scolding or discipline when she came to the principal’s office. Instead, “Before she could leave, I had her say, ‘I am strong. I have a voice. I am educated or I am in the process of becoming educated …’” Larson said. “We talked about how she was more than her circumstances.”

Foster’s success over the past two years may be rooted in advocacy for every student—but it has taken a lot of hard work changing structures, instruction, and support systems to actualize their collective belief. Here are some of the major initiatives:

  • Using Race to the Top grant funds to create an early-warning indicator system to catch at-risk students before they are in trouble of failure; add an on-time graduation specialist to monitor students’ progress toward their diploma; and create a college- and career-specialist position at the middle school.
  • Creating many opportunities for students to retrieve credits during summer and throughout the school year using an accredited online program, Red Comet.
  •  Emphasizing college and career readiness through activities such as participation in DiscoverU Week, reinstituting the annual College and Career Fair, and helping each student take an assessment to determine their aptitude and interest in certain career fields. The College and Career Counselor’s strong leadership and presence is a part of the daily culture at school.
  • Adding an assessment coordinator to track students’ graduation test requirements.
  • Adding more Advance Placement courses, doubling enrollment, and providing a summer “AP Boot Camp” to help prepare students for these college-level courses. (Foster’s AP Calculus scores were significantly above the state and international average!)
  • Partnering with organizations like Highline Community College and Youth Source for alternative learning programs for older students who need a combination of high-school credit and opportunities for job certification/degrees.
  • Having every student take the PSAT or SAT college-admission test during a school day in the fall.
  • Overhauling the discipline philosophy and procedures; outside of extreme incidents, students are not barred from classroom learning and/or the opportunity to make up school work.
  • Implementing Common Core State Standards, with support from an expert consultant in English.
  • Advocating at the state level to create an assessment to grant credit to bilingual students, and subsequently having all qualifying students take the assessment. (Foster had the highest number of students earning a bi-literate award in the state!)
  • ·Intensely focusing on struggling math students—analyzing data, sharpening instructional practices, and developing common assessments aligned with the Common Core. (Foster was recognized as being in the top 1 percent in the state for showing student growth in math!)
  • Aligning curriculum and instructional practices within departments and grade levels to create successful transitions.
  • Emphasizing AVID (college-preparation program) strategies during advisory periods to increase students’ awareness and control of their success in high school and beyond. (100 percent of students enrolled in the official AVID program graduated and are bound for post-secondary education!)
  • Extending the after-school program by adding para-educator support and extra time during peak study times.
  • Expanding traditions, celebrations, and support groups to help all students feel like they belong: adding an all-inclusive cultural assembly at homecoming; creating a Black Student Union, Asian Culture Club, and Educating Pacific Islanders Club (EPIC); and continued support for MeCHA (Latino), the Gay-Straight Alliance, and other clubs.

2015 Comparison of Graduation Rates

2014 4-Year Graduation Rate* 2015 4-Year Graduation Rate* Percentage-Point Change
All Students 55.1% 70.0% 14.9
Asian 47.8% 72.3% 24.5
Black 61.0% 66.1% 5.1
Hispanic 43.5% 75.0% 31.5
Multi-Racial 100.0% 66.7% -33.3
Native American 100.0% 100.0% 0
Pacific Islander 50.0% 54.5% 4.5
White 67.6% 69.0% 1.4
Students in Poverty 51.5% 68.3% 16.8
Special Education 20.0% 55.0% 35
English Language Learners 29.0% 54.5% 25.5

*The state’s Actual Adjusted 4-Year (On-Time) Cohort Graduation Rate is a measure of all of the students who entered their high school as freshmen and graduated four years later. Students who enter the school after freshmen year are included in the calculation. Students who left with a confirmed transfer to another school are removed from the calculation.