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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Op-ed: Navigating high-school students toward graduation and beyond

Toppenish High School Principal Trevor Greene writes about the Navigation 101 program, which has helped his school prepare its students for future success.

Special to The Times

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Yes, high school students need to connect with adults. Yes, Navigation 101 is one way... MORE
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If you’ve successfully completed high school and have a happy and productive life after college or in a career, you almost certainly have a caring, knowledgeable adult to thank for your achievement. Someone guided you, reminded you of the importance of school and helped you decide which courses to take. Someone made sure you did your homework, took the SAT, applied for college or trade school and applied for the financial aid to pay for it.

Perhaps that adult was one of your parents, or another relative. Perhaps it was a teacher, counselor or coach who took an interest. If so, you were lucky. Many kids don’t have that kind of guidance. They drop out or drift through school without acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

Nationally, just one out of five low-income students is prepared for college-level work, compared with more than half of middle- and upper-income students. And even when a low-income student gets into college, she is six times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than her more-affluent peers.

At Toppenish High School, where I am principal, we know that access to higher education is essential for low-income students looking for a way out of poverty. By 2018, two-thirds of the jobs in Washington will require a college degree or career credential.

At our school, 99 percent of kids live in poverty. About 86 percent are Hispanic, many the children of migrant farmworkers who speak only Spanish. Another 9 percent are Native American. Yet our graduation rate is 90 percent, our scores on state tests are rising, and more of our students are graduating ready for college or career.

How do we do this? One of our tools is a program called Navigation 101, a statewide program that helps low-income students graduate from high school ready for college. The program is funded jointly by the state and a grant from College Spark Washington, an innovative nonprofit dedicated to helping more kids get to college and succeed there. College Spark Washington has been resolute in its support for Navigation 101, but the state’s portion is regularly threatened by budget cuts.

Here’s how Navigation 101 works at Toppenish: Each incoming freshman or new student is assigned to an advisory class of about 24 students. Each group is assigned a teacher as an adviser. That same teacher meets with that same group of students for 24 minutes each school day for all four years.

During the school year, each Navigation 101 class progresses through activities designed to provide students with academic-success strategies and the knowledge to navigate college-prep requirements.

Each teacher also conducts credit evaluations, monitors attendance, tracks academic success, and maintains constant parental contact throughout the year.

As graduation approaches, advisory teachers make sure kids sign up for the SAT or other entrance exams. They help with college and trade-school applications, or help develop resumes and other tools to enter the job market directly.

One of our recent graduates was the first in her family to get a high-school diploma. She came from a conservative Hispanic family that expects girls to stay at home until they marry. She entered school with virtually no understanding of career opportunities or vocational education.

By the end of her sophomore year, she was on the honor roll and interested in automotive technology. As a junior, guided by her Nav 101 adviser, she began taking technical vocational classes through our partnership with Yakima Valley Community College, learning about the computer chips that govern today’s technically sophisticated cars and trucks.

As she progressed, her advisers worked to help her apply for financial aid, get into the technical school of her choice and talk with her family about the opportunities that awaited her. Today, she is a star student at an automotive-technology school in Arizona, headed for a bright future.

Toppenish isn’t the only school in Washington to use Navigation 101. But our deep commitment to the program has helped us achieve success despite the many obstacles our students face. Where many advisory classes meet only once a week or once a month, we meet every day. Some schools change advisory teachers at each grade; we keep students and teachers together for all four years.

We do this because it is of paramount importance for every student, especially students in poverty, to have an adult advocate.

Other schools and school districts may not face our challenges, but they all have students who need guidance, direction and leadership to reach their potential. They should make good use of this vital program, and all concerned Washingtonians should urge their lawmakers to help protect Navigation 101 from the budget ax.

Trevor Greene, principal of Toppenish High School, is the 2013 National Principal of the Year.

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