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Starting this school year, the graduating seniors at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School have every reason to plan to attend community college, regardless of their family’s finances — it will be free for a year.

The South Seattle school has been added to the 13th Year Promise Scholarship Program, a private scholarship fund run by South Seattle Community College. Cleveland and Chief Sealth high schools are already in the program.

Among students at Seattle’s highest poverty schools, students are often discouraged from even thinking about college because “They hear that college is expensive, or their parents say, ‘We can’t afford to send you to college,’ ” said Elizabeth Pluhta, South Seattle’s associate vice president of college relations and advancement. “And this says a year of college is free for you.”

Only about 47 percent of Rainier Beach’s graduating class last year went to college.

When Cleveland High joined the program in 2008, it had a similar profile, Pluhta said. It was a small school where fewer than half the students went to college. After the 13th Year program started there, the numbers going to college “doubled, and almost tripled,” she said.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our kids,” said Rainier Beach Principal Dwane Chappelle. “I think this is going to be a huge motivation for our students. I think this program will definitely change lives.”

A full load of community-college classes for a year costs about $5,000, including required fees.

Students will still have to apply for state and federal grant money; any tuition expenses not covered by those sources will be covered by the 13th Year fund.

The program covers all graduating seniors starting with the class of 2014 at Rainier Beach, regardless of their grade-point average and family-financial situation, Pluhta said.

She said the support services that go along with 13th Year scholarship money are equally important. Program counselors help students fill out financial-aid paperwork, and the college conducts a “readiness academy” to make sure they’re ready for college work.

They get extra counseling when they register, then spend a week in an intensive-orientation session before fall classes begin.

The program costs about $350,000 a year to run, Pluhta said. With Rainier Beach added to the mix, South Seattle expects about 125 to 130 students to be part of 13th Year next year, including about 25 students from Rainier’s expected graduating class of 100.

Another bonus of 13th Year: Those students who do go to South Seattle have strong return rates. About 60 percent return for a second year; for students not involved in the program, the average is 45 percent.

Although the 13th Year money doesn’t extend to the second year of college, students are often able to make up most of the cost through state and federal financial aid.

Dale Pancho, a 20-year-old Chief Sealth graduate, was a recipient of 13th Year money last year. Although he had planned to go to college, Pancho didn’t realize he needed to fill out financial-aid paperwork.

He also credits the program with helping him with the transition, and he used the opportunity to work on his communications skills and to network with professors and administrators at the college.

Pancho said college is going very well for him. He hopes to transfer to Seattle University or the University of Washington after this year, and to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Chappelle said two-year colleges are an especially good fit for students not yet prepared to go to a four-year college. “It gives them some self-reflection time,” he said. “If you can do that free of charge, that’s a pretty good opportunity.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.