News-Review: Douglas County Schools Work to Increase College Enrollment header image

Douglas County schools work to increase college enrollment
News-Review, 5.1.2012, by Inka Bajandas

Hunched in front of computers, a class of South Umpqua High School students prepared for college. Alayna Budel, 17, a senior, looked up classes she could take at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany toward a degree from Oregon State University. Next to her, Bryce Walter, also a 17-year-old senior, typed an essay to apply for a scholarship that would pay for seven credits at Umpqua Community College. Both students said they signed up for the college-readiness class to prepare for their education after they graduate in June. “It's really helpful to have someone tell you when all the due dates for scholarships are and help you with your essays,” Budel said.

Douglas County school districts recently received report cards from the National Student Clearinghouse on how effective such classes and other efforts are in helping students go on to college. Statewide, 59 percent of the class of 2009 had enrolled in a college by the fall of 2010. The statewide number was first reported by The Oregonian. With a few exceptions, Douglas County school districts had similar rates. The Roseburg School District had 60 percent of its 2009 graduates enroll in college.

Elkton, Glide, Sutherlin, North Douglas, Oakland, Reedsport and Days Creek school districts also surpassed the state average. Elkton's eight-member class of 2009 had the highest college enrollment rate at 75 percent. Winston-Dillard, Yoncalla, Camas Valley, South Umpqua, Riddle and Glendale school districts had rates below the state average. Riddle and Glendale school districts each had 48 percent of their graduates in college.

Douglas County school administrators say they're working hard to encourage more students to go to college. High schools throughout the county have dual enrollment programs that allow their students to earn college credit through UCC. Schools also offer college prep courses, encourage students to apply for scholarships and organize campus tours. In today's world, a high school education is not enough to get ahead, administrators say. Post-secondary schooling is required for most higher-paying jobs. “It was clear the biggest difference we could make in our students lives was to focus on what was going to happen after high school,” South Umpqua High Principal Kristi McGree said.

Roughly half of the 119 students who graduated from South Umpqua in 2009 enrolled in college by the fall of 2010. Although that rate is below the state average, McGree said the statistic isn't discouraging. The high school serves a rural area with many low-income students who would be the first in their families to attend college, she said. “We know that it takes time for lasting change,” McGree said.

South Umpqua High is among 36 middle and high schools in Oregon, including 14 in Douglas County, that participate in a college readiness program called GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The program, intended for schools in rural communities with a high percentage of students from low-income families, receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ford Family Foundation. GEAR UP college prep classes are one of many ways the school readies graduates for college, McGree said. South Umpqua High requires students to take a college class before graduating and counsels students on applying for scholarships and planning for post-high school education, she said.

At Glide High School, where 74 percent of the 2009 class enrolled in college, Principal Pam Maurice attributes the school's above-average rate to individual attention students receive. “They each get one-on-one. I think a lot of that too is the size of the school,” she said. “We don't have a lot of kids who fall through the cracks. We work really hard to be that transition for them. We don't consider high school the end.” Glide High's college counselor organizes two college tours a year, Maurice said. Students can sign up to visit 12 colleges to the north of Glide in the fall and six to the south in the spring, she said.

Oregon State University student Rachel Engle, 20, graduated from Glide High School in 2009. She said the high school's dual enrollment program with UCC gave her an edge when she started college. Engle, a junior with a double major in English and Spanish, enrolled with a term of college credit under her belt. “I think the dual enrollment classes that I took were probably the most helpful,” she said. “Those college classes I took my senior year definitely prepared me.”

Sutherlin High School was one of the first to offer college credit classes on campus, Superintendent John Lahley said. The high school had 67 percent of its 2009 graduates go to college. The opportunity to earn college credit while in high school is probably one reason why a higher than average percentage of the district's class of 2009 enrolled in college, he said. Sutherlin High Principal Justin Huntley said the school offers college-level courses in subjects such as English, math, psychology and agriculture. “It's affordable. All those kids have to pay is admission to UCC,” he said. “It also kind of gets their foot in the door, so it encourages them to continue their education.”

That's a major reason why Phoenix School, a charter high school that is part of the Roseburg School District, is strengthening its partnership with UCC, the school's executive director, Ron Breyne, said. The school has set the goal of making it possible for students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in programs such as culinary arts by 2018, he said. Roseburg High School Principal Karen Goirigolzarri said the school's Advanced Placement courses also give students a leg up. If students pass a test from the College Board, which also administers the SAT, they'll earn college credit for the courses.

Harvard University student Steven Strickland, 21, graduated from Roseburg High in 2009. Strickland said he and his classmates got a lot of help while applying for college — if they sought it. “I think the high school has what you need. My friends that wanted it, got it,” he said. “Making kids want it is the hard part. It's really pushing yourself.” Strickland said support he got from his family and teachers and involvement in Roseburg High's leadership program convinced him to dream big. He's now a junior majoring in English with a minor in economics. “Coming from a small place, it's hard to believe that you belong in a bigger place,” he said. “Academically, I was like, ‘I want to test myself the hardest.' ... I didn't think I had a shot in hell. Me and my dad joke that it was a clerical error.”

At South Umpqua High School, seniors Budel and Walter said taking the GEAR UP course makes them feel poised for the transition from high school to college. Budel said she hopes to study at OSU for the medical field. She recently found out she made the cheer leading squad. Walter plans to attend a community college to study dental hygiene. She said she's spent a lot
of time in the GEAR UP classes applying for schools and scholarships. “I got mostly everything done in here,” she said.

GEAR UP teacher Ryan Porter said he requires students to apply for at least five scholarships. Students also create five-year plans for after they graduate and calculate expenses, he said. Topics covered in the class include applying for financial aid, living with roommates and writing citations for research papers, Porter said. “At least we can say when they get to college, they've been exposed to those things,” he said. “They don't necessarily get that information from their parents. Kids nowadays need that.”

Strickland and Engle say going to college is worth the effort. “There's a lot more opportunity for learning and taking all sorts of different classes than in high school,” Engle said. She plans to go to graduate school and become a teacher. Strickland said he hopes to run political campaigns after graduating from Harvard. He said his generation can't consider college optional. “It used to be that you could sign up at the mill and work hard and support your family, but you can't do that anymore,” he said. He and Engle say they not only like how college will help their careers, but also how it will shape them. “There's huge character and personal development,” Engle said. “It's a really critical time. I think being able to go out and have new experiences is really important.”

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