One day this winter at tiny Onalaska High School in southwest Washington, senior Reagan Priest sat at a big-screen Mac and put the finishing touches on an essay she hoped would earn her a college scholarship.
While state law requires that every Washington public-school student create a “high school and beyond” plan, a collection of paper or digital documents that helps students think through their future, many students and districts treat it as a checklist. Only about 40 schools offered it as a for-credit class in 2016, according to the state superintendent’s office, and most of those are advisory periods that meet for a short time at the beginning of the day.
But at Onalaska, teachers Kaylene Kenny and Tom Phimister offer a sixth-period “Senior Success” class that meets for 50 minutes a day, all year long.
All the school’s seniors must take that class, where they write college essays, apply for scholarships and fill out financial-aid forms — activities most students in the state do at home.
The fact that Priest and other Onalaska students can do all that at school could be one of the reasons why this former mill town in rural Lewis County is punching above its weight when it comes to sending students to college.
Statewide, less than a third of public high-school graduates finish a two- or four-year degree, a college certificate or apprenticeship within six years, according to the Seattle-based business group Washington Roundtable. (That number doesn’t include the 20 percent who drop out of high school even before graduating, nor the roughly 6 percent who graduate from a private high school.)
And while college-going is more robust in urban areas like Seattle and Bellevue, there’s a major falloff outside the cities. In Lewis County, only about 24 percent of the high-school graduating class of 2007 had finished a bachelor’s degree or community-college transfer degree six years after graduation.
But at Onalaska last year, all but four of the 42 seniors got an acceptance letter from a two- or four-year college. This year, all 43 seniors were accepted, and 38 plan to go.
This year’s class won nearly $1 million in scholarships, including the state’s College Bound Scholarship, academic and athletic awards, and the Onalaska Scholarship Committee awards.
Like nearby Chehalis, where the district is undergoing a top-to-bottom reboot to increase its college-going rate, Onalaska has worked hard to change what its students do after high school.
“The culture is shifting,” said high-school Principal Rich Rasanen.
Onalaska, eight miles east of Interstate 5 on Highway 508, is a hamlet so small that there’s not even a stoplight at its major intersection. An occasional logging truck rumbles through, coming down from the mountains with mossy payloads destined for local mills.
“Onalaska High School: It’s a great day to be a Logger!” reads the school sign out front.
But logging and mill work have been on their way out for years, and as those jobs disappeared, Onalaska students needed a different plan, said Rasanen, who grew up in Aberdeen, a town with a similar economy. The message, to kids whose parents worked up in the logging industry: “Your parents had other opportunities — your opportunities have to be earned differently,” he said.
Finding different work may also require leaving Lewis County, its educators agree. The local economy simply doesn’t have much in the way of high-paying jobs, which is why Lewis County’s average annual wage in 2015 was $38,361, well below the state’s average of $56,650, according to the Employment Security Department.
And as logging equipment becomes more technical, educators say, even the people who work in the industry will need more education to know how to run those machines.
Like teachers in Chehalis, Onalaska’s educators stress that college doesn’t mean a four-year university, and it emphasizes prep for the working world.
It’s the only high school in the state that runs a fish hatchery, raising 100,000 coho salmon, 35,000 steelhead and 9,000 rainbow trout every year. Hatchery work is also a skill that can lead to a job after high school.
And even when they are accepted, not all of Onalaska’s grads end up going to college. Last year, for example, some joined the military, others enrolled in a trade school or started work immediately. Still, they know what it’s like to fill out a college application or apply for a scholarship, and if they decide later in life to get a degree, they’ll understand the process.
“Once they start getting accepted, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize it would be so easy,’ ” teacher Kenny said.
The school’s small size probably helps when it comes to motivating students, too.
Matt Bajo, a counselor for a federal program that encourages low-income students to go to college, has a unique understanding of Lewis County’s challenges. He travels to middle and high schools around the area, and finds Onalaska High exceptional.
“It’s incredible — you see a senior class where every one of them has applied to college and has been accepted,” said Bajo, who said no other high school in the area comes close. “Multiple colleges. That’s impressive to me.”
Reagan Priest is one of those seniors.
When she was filling out the scholarship form, she said she wanted to go to Central Washington University, and wanted to become a labor and delivery nurse.
Such a well-paying job would help Priest — whose family is “semi-low income,” as she describes it — chart a solid future in a career that’s in high demand. She would be the first in her family to go to college.
A few months later, she was accepted. And she also got the scholarship money to help pay for it.