The first semester had just ended last year as Lori Wyborney walked with a 20-year teacher at Rogers High School. He turned and looked at the building and said: “We are never going to fix this.”
The spunky 56-year-old Wyborney, principal at Rogers, refused to accept it, just like she won’t stop pushing students to reach beyond the perception that living in one of Spokane’s poorest neighborhoods is synonymous with underachievement.
“He’s one of the best instructors you will ever meet,” Wyborney said of the dispirited teacher. “He had just corrected some finals. He wasn’t super happy with them. I said, ‘We will fix this. We have to do it here so the kids can do it out there.’ ”
Wyborney arrived at Rogers as an assistant principal in 2007 and then became principal in 2010. That same year Rogers ranked in the bottom 5 percent in graduation rates for the entire state of Washington. This year, she expects the graduation rate to reach about 84 percent.
It’s a turnabout Spokane School District Superintendent Shelley Redinger called incredible. She credits Wyborney, who took the helm just as the stunning remodel of the Hillyard school was complete, for changing the culture and improving graduation rates.
“She was the right leader at the right time,” Redinger said. “If you ever talk with her, her passion and commitment is contagious. It’s just a positive energy. She knows all of her students’ names. She has really high expectations for all of them.”
The Rogers success has gained national recognition. Her methods were featured in an article earlier this year in the New York Times. She pulled off the transformation in a school of 1,482 students, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches, which is a benchmark that often reflects poverty.
“Our kids needed more hands on heads and eyes on them from people who know them well enough to say, ‘Hey I know you can do this,’ ” she said. “A lot of kids in low-income homes don’t believe that they can. A lot of our work was convincing them that, ‘yeah, you can do this.’ ”
School administrators started with small steps. They kept kids from fighting and got them to class. But the biggest gains came from pushing students, as early as middle school, to take more challenging classes that prepare them for college.
Steven Gering, who now sometimes consults with the school district, used the same method for improving the number of students attending college from North Central High School. Like Wyborney, he worked as principal to push students to take advanced placement courses to get kids believing that high school was preparing them for something greater.
“They are trying to reset that culture,” Gering said of Wyborney and her staff.
Last spring, Gering attended a school assembly at Rogers, located on East Wellesley Avenue. The event was the school’s academic version of national signing day.
So Wyborney didn’t truck out a handful of athletes to announce which college they had picked for football, basketball or baseball. Instead, she filled the gym with all of the school’s underclassmen to hear the plans of all the seniors.
“It was senior signing day. All the seniors declared where they were going next year,” Gering said. “All the freshmen, sophomores and juniors got to see this culture: This is what Rogers students do. That kind of setting, that kind of culture and expectation is having a big effect on the students.”
Beginning at the bottom
In 2007, only 49 percent of Rogers students completed four years of high school. Those numbers rose and fell slightly during the next few years: 55 percent in 2008, 50 percent in 2009, and 55 percent again in 2010.
“Nobody liked having such crappy graduation rates,” she said. “We knew we had to change that. We spent the first year designing what we needed to do.”
Wyborney quickly found out that many students wanted to learn, but they had other challenges, such as living in an apartment with no heat.
“Nearly 50 percent of my students live in rentals. The average income in this area and the unemployment rate compared to the rest of the state is crazy different,” she said. “It is shocking.”
Many of the students have experienced childhood traumas ranging from divorce, the death of a loved one, violence, drugs, poverty, imprisonment, neglect and physical, sexual or psychological abuse.
“As a teacher, we are taught to teach a student a subject. How do you help a homeless kid find resources? I don’t know,” she said. “That’s why I had to hire a social worker.”
The school also hired two mental health specialists and a drug-and-alcohol counselor.
“We have 30 to 40 percent of students who have experienced complex trauma,” she said. “That impacts their brain.
“So, we have to do a lot of work around how do we reverse that. Sometimes it’s simple things like: ‘I was just thinking about you the other day.’ The kid sees that as someone I can trust.”
Eliminating easy choices
Once teachers and staff solved many of the challenges that kept students away from school, Wyborney set out to change the expectations in the classrooms.
“We wanted kids to have choices, but we wanted them to make good choices,” she said, “so we got rid of all of the bad ones. I took away all of the stupid classes.”
One class to get the ax was “Outdoor Living,” which essentially taught kids how to camp.
“School officials who still have that class get mad at me when I say that,” Wyborney said. “But (Outdoor Living) was just a place to put kids who didn’t do well in other sciences.”
Wyborney also worked with the district to begin pushing advanced placement classes in the two middle schools that feed most of Rogers’ students.
“We started with 16 (advanced placement) classes and now we have 23,” she said. “We’ve gone from 200 to 600 kids in AP classes and we are trying to add AP macroeconomics. Kids aren’t afraid of them like they once were.”
One of the core concepts of the tougher classes is teaching students to take notes and research and write the way they would for college courses. Many of the AP courses qualify students for college credits.
“But even if they didn’t get college credits, it mimics what college would be like,” Wyborney said. “We want you prepared now, not when you take that first step onto the college campus. We don’t want you being surprised.”
Gering, the former North Central principal, said that students don’t have many choices for jobs with only high school diplomas. As a result, he and Wyborney pushed students to believe that the diploma was just the beginning.
“It’s kind of a recalibration,” Gering said. “Graduation is not our finish line. We want to help every kid complete all the steps to get to post-secondary education. It’s one thing if you don’t want to go to college, but it’s a crime if you don’t go on because you didn’t know or have the resources to navigate that next step.”
In addition to providing the tougher courses, Wyborney meets with her staff every two weeks to talk about any students who are struggling.
The staff gets to know all the “names and faces of students who are not graduating on time and we do everything we can to get them to re-engage,” she said. “We are in a better place than we were 10 years ago.”