Nearly two decades ago, the Everett School District had one of the state’s lowest high-school graduation rates, and few students went on to college.

The district has done a significant turnaround. Last month, the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) — a state policy board — highlighted Everett for its four-year high-school graduation rate in 2018 of 96 percent, higher than the state average of 81 percent. Since 2016, about 65 percent of its students have gone on to enroll in postsecondary education, such as a two- or four-year college or vocational school.

Its completion rates for the federal financial-aid forms that unlock college aid have also improved. The district’s numbers “speak to a long-standing districtwide commitment to student outcomes, both in and after high school,” said Emily Persky, policy communications manager for WSAC.

The advancements are part of a deliberate strategy developed after Everett officials realized how poorly the district was performing, said Jeanne Willard, director of college and career readiness and on-time graduation for Everett. (Persky notes that WSAC hasn’t come across a position called “director of on-time graduation” in many other districts.)

It started 15 years ago. In 2002-03, only 53 percent of Everett seniors graduated from high school on-time, 13 percentage points lower than the state average at that time, Willard said. “Our board took that really seriously — we created a task force, gathered the counselors together, and asked, ‘What should we do about this?'”

The result was a deep dive into the data and some major changes to focus on getting kids to the finish line.

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The district began hiring success coordinators — educators whose primary job is to get students to graduate on time. Their work includes helping students get credit for courses they failed by learning the key concepts of those courses, an approach known as credit recovery. They track down students who are skipping school to get them back in the classroom, and find alternative ways of assessing students who do not pass state tests.

High-school graduation rates reflect the percentage of students who graduated within four years after first starting 9th grade. The rate is adjusted for students who moved in and out of the school, district or state.

Everett’s standardized test scores have ticked slightly upward over the years, although not as fast as its graduation rates, a phenomenon that’s been observed in other districts as well. About 71 percent of students met the English standard in 2018, up from 63 percent in 2015. Math scores also rose, to 59 percent meeting the standard in 2018, up from 53 percent in 2015.

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In 2018, nearly 71 percent of Everett students completed a dual-credit course that allowed them to earn college credit in high school. The state average was 59 percent.

Everett runs an online high-school program that allows students to earn credits faster by taking online courses in addition to the courses they take during the school day, as well as to recover credits. (Some educators and researchers have raised concerns about credit recovery, questioning whether it as effective as retaking a failed course in a traditional classroom.)

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Every Tuesday, a working group of principals and other educators sits down with a list of five to 10 students who are “in the red,” as Willard calls it — students whose grades, attendance records and test scores show they’re not on track to graduate. The group members share what they know about each student’s life story, information that helps everyone understand the obstacles that stand in the way. Then they work out a plan to get those students to finish. “It really comes down to following up on very individualized cases,” she said.

For those students who still aren’t ready to walk in June, the district runs a summer program to help them graduate by August — which also counts as on-time graduation. That’s a fairly typical approach in other districts, but Everett goes one step further by providing free transportation, including a district van that goes to a student’s home.

In 2013, Everett was part of a national college financial-aid completion pilot, which allowed the district to find out which students hadn’t yet completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). School officials could then work with those families to help them finish. That pilot grew into a national portal that all districts now use.

About 36 percent of Everett students are low-income, and 14 percent are English Language Learners. The majority of students, 53 percent, are white; the next largest demographic group is Hispanic/Latino, who make up 19 percent of enrollment.

“By completing the FAFSA, lots of other good things happen,” Willard said. Research shows that students who complete the form are more likely to graduate from both high school and college. In 2018, 62 percent of Everett seniors finished the FAFSA.

Many students start the FAFSA during the required college and career readiness seminar. In those classes, students can also complete college essays, write up a résumé, and do mock employment interviews. The district also runs a college fair and helps connect students to Everett Community College and to the new Washington State University campus in Everett, Willard said. Since 2005, it has participated in GEAR UP, a federal program that provides grants to districts to increase the number of students in postsecondary education.

Everett’s progress has flown under the radar, but it’s impressive, said Lynne Varner, associate vice chancellor of WSU Everett. Varner praised the district’s commitment to dual-enrollment classes and said its schools are performing above the state average, and that special-education students and English Language Learners are doing well, too.

Everett’s work demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, said WSAC Executive Director Michael Meotti. By putting different interventions and programs together, Everett has boosted not only its graduation rate but also its college-going rate.

He said, “When you pull it all together, these individual interventions accumulate to a much bigger impact.”