Road Map’s annual report card measuring school results for South King County students shows reasons to be hopeful for younger students, but major holes in college preparation among older kids.

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No one disputed the aims of Road Map, an ambitious and well-funded effort to raise the performance of students in seven South King County districts by approaching their schools collectively, as a regional challenge. But eight years and $40 million later, even the consortium’s savvy and sober-minded leader has found that creating deep change is harder than anticipated.

“It’s what keeps me up at night,” said Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that supports Road Map’s data-crunching and analysis. “It’s taking a lot longer than I thought, but I do feel like we’re on the right track and we have to stay with it. If we want a better society, I don’t see another path.”

Ryan’s comments were prompted by Road Map’s 2017 Results Report, released Tuesday, which tracks everything from kindergarten readiness to college-graduation rates for the 127,290 students in Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Tukwila and South Seattle schools.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to some of the most persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, a New York-based nonprofit that works to spread the practice of solutions-oriented journalism. Education Lab is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information visit seattletimes.com/education-lab »

There were some bright spots, particularly for young children. More 4- and 5-year olds are attending preschool and ready for kindergarten than were in 2013 — a rate that jumped from 37 percent to 44 percent last year.

There is also more money for after-school programs. And some schools, like White Center Heights Elementary in the Highline district, have made major improvements to student absenteeism through sustained outreach to parents. At White Center Heights, the chronic absenteeism rate plunged from 24 percent of students to 8 percent in three years.

“The thing I hadn’t expected is that it would be so much about a community,” said school Principal Anne Reece. “You are shifting norms. One-hundred percent of our chronic absences are the result of adult choice, not kid choice.”

But the larger patterns are impossible for Ryan to ignore, particularly around college-going. In 2008, 89 percent of the region’s ninth-graders aspired to earn a college degree. Only 29 percent of high-school graduates in Road Map schools actually do so by their mid-20s.

A major reason for this is high-school counseling — or the lack of it. While more students are taking college-level courses, applying for financial aid and graduating in four years, only 61 percent have completed the courses necessary to apply to college.

While hailing efforts such as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s vow to provide two years of free community college to the city’s graduating seniors, Ryan has her eye on more systemic fixes.

“We can’t just keep looking at data year after year and expect it to be better when we haven’t built the system strength to serve kids,” she said, vowing to fight for more school counselors at every opportunity.

The Road Map report underscores this gap. Only 38 percent of ninth-graders said they were aware of the course requirements necessary to apply to a four-year institution. By the time they are seniors and realize what they’ve missed, it is often too late.

In the seven-district Road Map region, 71 percent of students are children of color, and 55 percent are low-income, precisely the kinds of kids who rely most on school counselors for help navigating the college-enrollment process. But a typical public high school there has four counselors for every 1,300 students.

By comparison, Seattle’s Lakeside School, which is private, has five college counselors serving 586 teens.

Ryan, who served in the Clinton administration and led Mayor Greg Nickels’ Office of Policy and Management, has deep knowledge of the terrain, but even she expressed surprise at the “crisis level” of student homelessness in her region. Now at nearly 5,000 children, it is more than double the number reported when Road Map began in 2010.

“Just seeing this continued spike in student homelessness — a state of emergency during a time of prosperity — is so disturbing,” she said. “I can’t recall this kind of effect on families and children in such a time of economic prosperity and low unemployment. You can be working and just unable to find an affordable place to live. It’s a massive problem.”