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Originally published June 14, 2014 at 7:06 PM | Page modified June 14, 2014 at 9:45 PM

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Focus on science, tech pays off in soaring graduation rate

A supercharged tech curriculum has helped transform Toppenish High School, among the state’s poorest schools, from a dropout factory into a case study for success.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Staring into a bin filled with cow eyeballs, high-school principal Trevor Greene felt the twitch of an idea.

He’d been touring the slaughterhouse across the road from Toppenish High with students from an agriculture class when it occurred to him that science teachers at his high-poverty school might be able to use the leftover body parts — hearts, pancreases, joints — for their new biomedical courses.

At the time, in 2011, Toppenish in Yakima County was in the midst of a five-year overhaul, transforming itself from a dropout factory, where only 19 percent of students passed state algebra exams, into a regional model for science and technology education.

Today, most of the school’s 830 students — all of them low-income — have taken courses in engineering, biomedical science or aerospace. Enrollment in advanced math has tripled. And the four-year graduation rate is 94 percent — a figure enviable even among the state’s most privileged districts.

Measured by socioeconomics, Toppenish has never met that definition. Half of the district’s parents never graduated high school.

Toppenish’s results — which came largely through replacing less popular electives like journalism and photography with technology-intensive classes — cannot be attributed entirely to a supercharged curriculum.

At the same time that it added engineering and biomedical sciences, the school reorganized into old-fashioned homerooms that brought each student into daily contact with the same teacher from ninth through 12th grade. A graduation specialist tracked credits and intervened fast when kids got off track.

Yet considering Washington’s low graduation rate for minority students and how poorly the state ranks in tech-oriented education overall, Toppenish stands out as a case study that is hard to ignore.

Statewide, only 42 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math last year, and fewer than half of high-school graduates had the necessary credits to get into a four-year college.

Nationally, only 30 percent are even ready for college-level work in science. China and India, meanwhile, are graduating engineers at triple the U.S. rate.

In 2005, a panel of 20 tech-industry leaders, Nobel Prize-winning scientists and federal advisers commissioned by the Secretary of Education to evaluate America’s status in science and math found the landscape so dismal that it threatened the nation’s economy.

“The scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength,” they wrote in their report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm. ” By 2010, they said the outlook had only worsened.

But since then, schools in Washington have begun to bulk up their science, engineering, technology and math curricula — topics commonly referred to by the acronym STEM. Some, like Cleveland High in Seattle, are seeing turnarounds similar to that in Toppenish. Still, they constitute a relative handful of bright spots.

“We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost,” the federal panel warned, “and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained at all.”

Breaking the trend

Toppenish appears among the least likely places for a reversal of this trend.

The high school sits next to a cornfield on the Yakama Indian Reservation, where the median household income hovers below $30,000, the slaughterhouse is the largest employer around and a third of all parents never made it past ninth grade.

On the first day of class this school year, Brenda Mallonee, the new principal, alternated between rallying 11th-graders and helping other kids get to class fully dressed.

“Whatzzup, Miss,” said a young man knocking at her office window just as the school day began. “Do you have a piece of string I can use for a belt?”

In this climate, offering high-grade science and engineering classes might seem impossibly ambitious. But through a combination of federal grants, savvy leadership and local business partnerships, Toppenish has managed to incorporate career-focused training into a traditional high school.

DNA-testing supplies and an autoclave for disinfecting-dissection equipment stock the lab linking two new biomedical and engineering classrooms. Several 3D printers take up space on countertops. A wind tunnel lines part of one hallway.

Startup funds for equipment and training came via $500,000 in federal grants, the rest through regular state education funds. Since 2008, the school district, which has a $40 million annual budget, has put $1.5 million toward STEM at its middle and high schools.

It’s a significant investment but one that is paying off, both in hard data (test scores, graduation rates) and with more intangible benefits, like confidence.

“The exposure is huge,” said Superintendent John Cerna, watching two girls in lab coats slice through the sclera of a cow’s eyeball.

“These classes are giving our kids the opportunity to think of themselves as civil or electrical engineers, or in aerospace. We’ve got several kids who are going to become doctors — they see the relevance now. Before, math was just numbers.”

An insistence on applying science and engineering skills to real-life jobs anchors the Toppenish approach. And it revolutionized high school for Armando Bravo, 18, who will start at Central Washington University this fall as a construction management major.

“I hate math,” he said. “I’ve struggled with it throughout school, and after I was done with Algebra 2, I said, ‘OK, that’s it, I’m finally finished.’ But my teachers told me that if I’m going into construction I’ll need a lot of math, and they motivated me to try trigonometry and precalculus. I ended up taking two more classes than I actually needed.”

Bravo also designed a dream gym, built an insulated, environmentally friendly doghouse — complete with easy-open roof for cleaning — and traveled to California with the Toppenish robotics team to show off “Bexy,” a robot they’d created right down to its computer coding.

“I started all this with civil engineering as a freshman,” he said. “I really liked that it was just ‘get in there and see what you can do.’ ”

As he spoke, demonstrating controls for the robot, Bravo’s father was at work across the street, skinning slaughtered cows at AB Foods at about $13 an hour.

The plant’s noisy production line has long provided an income for Toppenish High School graduates. But engineering fast-tracked Armando Bravo into something vastly different and, simultaneously, elevated him from a low-level to top-ranked student.

Other kids report similar results. Since Toppenish began investing in science and technology, pass rates on state-mandated biology exams have jumped from 29 to 45 percent and college-going has climbed too.

“It made me want to come to school — to get to work on my projects,” Bravo said.

Gathers momentum

The seeds were planted one evening seven years ago, as former NASA engineer Conan Viernes sat in his garage in nearby Wapato, Yakima County, listening to music and flipping through “Gathering Storm,” the government report that warned so alarmingly of America’s math and science deficiency.

It mentioned Project Lead the Way as a promising model, noting the curriculum’s approach to teaching high-level concepts through group projects.

“I looked at my own engineering education,” Viernes said, “and I could see that it prepares you to think very critically, to work in teams with attention to detail. I thought, this could really help Toppenish, and if it can succeed here, it can succeed anywhere.”

So Viernes called his uncle, John Cerna, then the assistant superintendent of Toppenish schools.

Cerna had studied engineering himself before turning to education, and he was intrigued.

He gathered his math and science staff and pitched the idea. It would mean rejiggering schedules and training teachers to become engineering coaches. The initial reception might best be described as chilly.

The math department chair walked out. Only three teachers signed up for training, and found themselves floored by 15-hour days that had them reviewing notes at midnight.

But what began in 2008 with a few dozen students taking Introduction to Engineering has since ballooned to more than 600 enrolled in everything from aerospace to biomedical intervention to computer-assisted drafting — all of it driven by student demand.

“We started with like 70 kids the first semester, and the next we were flooded,” said Enrique Romero, one of those teachers who took the first-year training.

Students brought their friends into class to show off what they’d designed — a toy train fashioned with a 3D printer, a wooden block created in three dimensions on a computer screen, a reverse-engineered dart. By the end of the first year, more than 100 had signed up.

In Year 2, Toppenish added Aerospace and doubled the number of participating students. By Year 3, with Biomedicine and Digital Electronics, they had more than 400 enrolled.

Teachers, noting improved test scores among kids who’d studied Biomedicine, scrapped the traditional freshman class — Earth Science — and replaced it with Principles of Biomedical Science for all ninth-graders.

Embracing change

Local industry has embraced the changes, and not with the standard corporate approach of endowed auditoriums and highflying scholarships.

Toppenish Community Hospital has agreed to dispose of the school’s biomedical waste, and freshmen make regular trips to watch scientists extracting DNA from mosquitoes at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. And AB Foods, owner of the beef-processing plant, is now a regular presence.

This came about after the initial visit by former principal Greene, who’d reluctantly agreed to chaperone a group of students studying animal science.

“I won’t lie. Going to a slaughterhouse was nothing I wanted to do,” he said of the plant, which emits a stomach-churning odor when the wind shifts. “But I’d been the Toppenish principal three years by then and never seen the place where so many of our parents worked, where a lot of our students seek employment.”

That visit — which resulted in AB Foods handing over scads of cow organs for students to work with — is emblematic of the pragmatism Toppenish used to create buy-in.

Brad McDowell, the meat-plant president, once hoped to become a surgeon. Now watching Toppenish move students toward their own science careers, he has become one of the school’s strongest boosters, hosting tours and offering to debate the social issues raised by a slaughterhouse that plays a vital role in the local economy while butchering up to 1,500 head of cattle a day.

“We used to have a horrible stigma in the community,” McDowell said. “But I try to show kids that we’ve also got microbiologists and an IT department, all these career opportunities. Half of them, their parents work here, and I think it’s important that they understand.”

Yessenia Sandoval, whose father picks vegetables in the nearby fields, isn’t gunning for a trip to the beef plant. But she was eager to show off a toy she’d designed with computer drafting.

“At first, it was really hard,” she said, explaining the challenge of drawing a spherical head, then calculating the precise size of the cylinders that would become its eyes and ears.

But seeing the figure in three dimensions on her computer screen, Sandoval conceived another way.

“That’s when I thought about cutting it in half,” she said. “Putting it all together is pretty cool.”

Sandoval does not consider herself much of a math student. Nor did the kids who constructed a lift for nurses at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital to address the problem of patient beds so high they made treatment difficult.

Yet toy-making forced Sandoval to learn how to calculate the volume of a cylinder, and the hospital-ramp designers needed trigonometry to determine the proper angle for their slope.

“If you ask them, ‘Are you good at math?’ only a couple will raise their hands,” said Romero, their teacher. “But tell them that they need to get the diameter of a cylinder and multiply that by pi to make their design work and there — they’ve done it.”

Graduation success

In wealthier, more urban areas like Spokane and Seattle, teachers report similar enthusiasm for hands-on projects among their students.

At Riverpoint Academy, in the Mead School District in Spokane, students who never before considered themselves college material are headed for the University of Washington, Washington State and the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

At Seattle’s Cleveland High, which faced the possibility of closure a few years ago, a focus on science and technology projects has coincided with a 22-point increase in reading scores, a 15-point increase in the graduation rate and a 100-student surge in enrollment.

“It builds relevance for students by giving them a purpose,” said Cleveland’s academic dean, Catherine Brown. “We’ve had wait-lists for freshmen the past two years.”

A focus on high-tech careers means a commitment — among staff as well as budget-writers. Cleveland changed its entire schedule to allow for longer class times, paying for 30 minutes more daily instruction with grant money.

In Toppenish, humanities faculty have grumbled about the million-dollar investment in science. But outside observers see the school is a case study for improving programs without bleeding the local tax base.

“Toppenish is a model,” said Lee Lambert, who monitors progress on this front for the advocacy group Washington STEM. “They don’t have a benevolent corporate partner dumping millions of dollars in. They made all this progress within the existing system — using grants, local dollars and really smart leadership. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar high school that’s done the same.”

While no one at Toppenish is crediting the high school’s 94 percent graduation rate to STEM alone, overall enrollment has surged — from about 700 students before the tech investment to 900 projected for next year — and teachers say they are keeping kids who years ago might have drifted away.

Armando Bravo was one of them, and he grinned as Mallonee handed over his diploma at the school’s commencement ceremony earlier this month. She’d graduated from the school herself 19 years ago and marvels at the change.

“It’s not just about graduating them so they can go work in the fields,” the principal said later. “Sure, our graduation rate is great, but what about the year after that? What are you going to do to better your life?”

Armando Bravo already has his answer.

Once, in sophomore engineering, hemade a marble-sorter that could read colors. All the parents who came to see it after their work sorting green apples from red quipped that Armando and his machine might someday take their jobs.

But no one seemed to mind.

Claudia Rowe: 206-464-2531 or

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