WSA Program Proving that Children Born into Poverty Can Succeed Academically

The Washington State Achievers (WSA) program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is based on the premise that every student in the United States deserves the chance to go to college. Most U.S. high school students want to attend college. They recognize that higher education is the most direct path to success in their future careers. College also provides opportunities to explore talents and develop leadership skills they can use to participate more fully in adult life – at home, at work and in their communities.

The problem is that millions of students can’t afford the tuition. The Gates Foundation estimates that between 2005 and 2016 nearly 4.5 million students won’t pursue higher education because of cost. Low-income students and those of color are particularly hard hit. Only one in 10 low-income students can expect to graduate from college. And disproportionately fewer students of color earn bachelor’s degrees. This is not due to a lack of talent but rather the high costs of tuition, plus the fact that many graduate from high school without the skills they need to succeed in college. They also lack guidance on how to choose a school, apply for admission, and fill out financial aid forms. The Gates Foundation promises to help more than 27,000 low-income students get to college by 2016. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) provided extensive summaries of multiple studies conducted on the WSA program.

“Research showed that pre-college interventions are needed to touch on all barriers facing lowincome students when they attempt to obtain a baccalaureate degree,” says Greg Kienzl, Ph.D., IHEP’s director of research and evaluation. “For example, the WSA’s high school reform component includes decreasing class size, creating a personalized learning environment and adjusting teaching styles and curricular requirements.” These were criteria for schools wanting to become recipients of the program; and the adoption of these components, Kienzl says, “all led to improvements in the number of students ready for college.”

The WSA program began with 10 cohorts, each one with 500 students from 16 schools, covering 10 years of giving, finishing this June. The grants in the WSA program amounted to close to $130 million to 16 schools in 13 districts. A newer and similar program has been initiated in Washington, D.C., but this time focused on six high schools in a single district, the funding here about $160 million.

As a strikingly dramatic illustration of the success of the Gates program, we turn to the Mabton School District in Mabton, Wash. Sandra Pasiero-Davis, who recently retired after six years as district superintendent, describes Mabton as a small rural farming community in Eastern Washington. “There is nothing here but agriculture, and over 90 percent of our community is Hispanic,” she explains. “And we have a variety of Hispanic populations, for Hispanic does not mean just one thing.”

Attending the school are children of migratory parents of one to three generations back who have settled in that community. There are other children of parents who are still migratory workers, but who have settled in Mabton as a home base. Some students are offspring of non-English-speaking parents; these children speak Spanish at home and English at school. Some children do not speak Spanish even though they are of Hispanic ethnicity. There is a small population of students who do not speak English. A few children are White, and a smaller number are Native American.

Not surprisingly, this diversity presented many challenges. “One of the problems we struggled with along the way is that teachers don’t come out of college prepared for this huge range of diversity in the classroom,” Pasiero- Davis says. “The notion that a teacher can work all summer evolving lesson plans that can be used is a myth. It’s not going to happen. For all that preparation is for a mythical being who will not show up in the classroom on that first day.”

Moreover, there is the additional challenge in that the teachers are predominantly White middle class. “Teachers have to develop not only the competencies to design lessons to meet the students’ needs, they also have to gain the cultural skills to see the strengths and assets the students bring, and not their weaknesses.” Much of the Gates money was used to develop the teachers’ professional skills in this regard. And both administrators and teachers spend considerable amounts of time evolving strategies that are effective.

“One of the things we do is have an early dismissal every Friday, so we can sit down with the teaching staff and have a critical discussion. We gather data, some of it academic and numeric, some of it perceptual and qualitative, and some of it teacher experience,” Pasiero-Davis continues.

“We add it all together and ask pointed questions. What do we know? What are we missing? What can we do, and who do we need to help us? We develop our own strengths, as well as those of our teachers, so they become collaborators, rather than being isolated and feeling they have to wing it on their own. It’s a very powerful process.”

Asked whether things went relatively smoothly or there were many ups and downs, Pasiero- Davis laughs and quips, “Oh, it was all smooth sailing.” But then she adds, “Yes, there were ups and downs. But initially, we had a very simple theory, namely, that to help our high school students become college ready, they should have a strong relationship with their teachers, coaches and administrators. For those students who had such a relationship would tend to do better than those who did not.”

Another theory put into practice, continues Pasiero-Davis, “and this is counter-intuitive, that instead of relaxing our standards to adjust to the special challenges our students faced, we instead increased the academic rigor. For we felt this is what is necessary to develop the attitude and skills they needed to persist in college.”

So developing teacher skills at the same time as increasing the standards for students turned out to be a winning combination, Pasiero-Davis says. “The Gates funding eliminated the economic barrier,” she continues. “Most of our students are on free or reduced lunch cost programs, for most of the families live in poverty.” Still, success was not automatic.

“As we traveled through the years, we discovered that differentiation in teaching is essential,”

Pasiero-Davis says. “When a teacher takes on a classroom of students, some of the students have reading skills that exceed grade level, some are at grade level, and some are below. Whether you’re teaching history or science or math, if you can’t accommodate all of your students, you automatically stop a percentage from being successful. The children here who exceed grade level would be uncommonly bored if the teacher went down the middle, and the slower students would be blocked out altogether.”

This is not an unusual problem, even in conventional middle-class schools, but is exacerbated in a school with as much diversity as Mabton. Moreover, that school does not have the luxury of dividing students into three different classes of average, slow and advanced. “We’re a small school,” Pasiero-Davis says. “We can’t have three science teachers for the same class,” says Pasiero-Davis.

“So we began working on how teachers could have the same learning target, but have a different path for the different students,” she explains. “For instance, if I’m teaching a science class and I want to understand the dynamics of digestion from the time we eat until the body is done with it, there’s a lot of scientific language the student needs to know.”

What this means, she says, is that the advanced students are taught the vocabulary with a minimum of effort and then are sent off on independent projects. The struggling students are given a more intense focus on the technical terms, not on simple equivalents, and the middle student will be related to as needed.

Asked for a specific example of a specific seemingly intractable problem that’s been solved, Pasiero-Davis replies, “These problems go across a vast spectrum, but one of the most dramatic and easiest to talk about is the migratory child who does not speak English. “So what will most high school English teachers say when faced with such a child? ‘We can’t do anything with this kid because he can’t read the books?’” This can be very short-sighted, Pasiero-Davis says, but what another teacher, who is Spanishliterate, might suggest, is assigning that student an equivalent work in Spanish. “The student can read a like work of literature in Spanish, for the learning objectives are the same, the appreciation of the genre and the author’s intent, plot and character development. These are not restricted to English literature.”

One of the problems associated with idealistic philanthropic programs such as those offered by the Gates Foundation is that, says Pasiero-Davis, “It seems you throw money at apparently intractable social conditions such as people of color living in poverty, and that, as soon as the money dries up, you’re right back where you started.”

Facing this issue, Pasiero-Davis says, is “that though this was originally seen as a program for high school students, it soon became clear that we have to change our culture, to raise the expectations for all our students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Moreover, this had to be one of the goals of our board of directors, and it had to have the dedication of all our teachers and staff. This was the toughest nut to crack.”

However, gradually all aspects of the school did buy into this entire change of attitude. Perhaps even more significantly, the parents have too. The farming families in this area have traditionally regarded all of their children as a part of their work unit. Some cropping the students can do during periods not interfering with school. But other times there is a direct conflict.

“The parents have come to sacrifice their children as economic assets in exchange for their academic progress. This is a huge sacrifice,” says Pasiero-Davis.

The result, she continues, is that, after submitting to the Gates Foundation guidelines for reducing student-teacher ratios, paying for teacher professional development skills, the use of appropriate technology, and so on, along with the changes the school has implemented on its own, is that, “after 10 years of practicing it this way, we now believe this is the way we’ve always done it. Even after the money has expired, from the student body pre-K through senior year, teachers, administrators, parents, up and down the line, we expect these kids to go to college.”

The result, says Pasiero-Davis,” is that now an astounding 80 percent of the students go to college.” But this is not yet a totally happy ending.

“The problem then is students staying in college,” Pasiero-Davis says. “But this is a problem for everybody. The Gates Foundation does keep longevity data on kids, but I don’t have those numbers in front of me. Students drop out of college from this community as well as everywhere else. There are too many life pressures, and especially if students come from a family-oriented culture, they often miss the social and moral support. Nevertheless, we have some 30 to 40 percent of those who start college graduate from a four-year college. This is about as good as if not slightly better than the national average.”

What happens to students once they leave Mabton is beyond the school’s control, however.

And Pasiero-Davis believes the core overriding problem “is the way we fund our schools. For if we believe we want a college-oriented culture, then we have to have a budget to respect that, or we’re kidding ourselves. There has to be a reciprocity between the notion embedded in our culture that all kids can go to college, and our leadership. If this is what we believe in, this is how we should pay for it.”

In view of the fact that Mabton developed this pro-college expectation that will continue even though the Gates money has run out, the question is whether Bill and Melinda Gates had something like this in mind at the start? Or were they simply experimenting?

“Rather than an experiment, this was a demonstration project,” answers Pasiero-Davis. “It set out to debunk the myth that children of color born into poverty could not succeed.” In other words, the Mabton school and community is a stunning illustration of just what the Gateses intended.

But now what? Pasiero-Davis believes both the government and the worlds of business and industry, all partnered with each other, should learn the lessons demonstrated by the Gateses, and continue the process.

But until and if that happens, how is Mabton going to sustain its new college-oriented culture and maintain high standards with state money shrunken or disappeared and no new programs such as that of Gates coming to the fore?

“We’re dedicated,” Pasiero-Davis responds.

“We love these children,” and many “are still trying to climb the ladder, even with so many of the rungs missing. The fact that the money goes away does not represent an absolute. You don’t have to go back to the default mode. You always have a choice.”