BRIDGEPORT, Wash. – Bridgeport High School earned national attention as one of three finalists in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.
Although it fell short of the top prize – having President Barack Obama as graduation speaker – school officials thought that U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis was a great alternative because her story is familiar to the students. She is the daughter of immigrants and the first in her family to go to college.
“You guys are on the map now, that’s for sure,” said Solis during an informal gathering before Wednesday’s graduation ceremony. “The president would have loved to have been here. If he could see what I’ve seen today, he would be just as moved.”
Many of the students at Bridgeport High School, which is nearly 90 percent Hispanic, are children of immigrants who moved to the small town for agricultural jobs. Most of the students are first in their family to graduate from high school, and all 37 graduates have been accepted to a college, school officials said.
“And the first to help shape the 21st century,” Solis added during her commencement speech to a crowd of nearly 800 guests. Meeting these students “gives me hope and inspiration.”
Students are overcoming adversity like poverty and language barriers to achieve success “all over the country,” she said. “But these students are a shining example. We expect to see good things to come.”
Bridgeport High School has not always been the success story that recently thrust it into the national spotlight.
Ten years ago, the on-time graduation rate was only 41 percent. The school district had no Internet access, offered no college level or Advanced Placement classes and about 70 percent of the students struggled to transition from Spanish to English.
Today its on-time graduation rate is 100 percent. The district is online and students can take up to 60 college credits in cooperation with a Wenatchee college – more classes than offered at some large urban high schools. And now all the students have a good grasp of the English language.
Superintendent Scott Sattler has been with the district for more than a decade. He attributes the high school’s success to a variety of changes.
“I think by offering a more rigorous program, kids are able to feel success in their own environment and develop confidence,” Sattler said.
But in order to offer success for all students, more change was needed.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said. “We introduced an alternative program. We also began offering more hands-on programs,” such as auto mechanics, agriculture, horticulture, welding, basic construction, Web design and accounting.
“I just really think to be successful you have to offer things at a lot of levels,” Sattler said.
The students also credit their teachers for their achievement. “Teachers at Bridgeport HS are invested in their students and are intentional about reminding students to work hard, do their very best and behave as appropriate young adults,” a student wrote in a Race to the Top Commencement Challenge essay.
Without their principal, Tamra Jackson, the students’ achievements and the school’s turnaround would not be something for other districts to emulate.
Solis told a personal story of how good educators in schools can make all the difference. While one high school counselor encouraged her to go to college and offered to help her make it happen, another told her she should just try to be a secretary like her sister.
“Well the one counselor was part right, I did become a secretary. The U.S. Secretary of Labor,” she said. The moral is “believe in oneself … don’t let anyone else determine your future.”