Shasta County education officials kicked off a countywide initiative Monday aimed at improving students’ chances of educational and economic success after high school.
During a Women’s Fund lunchtime forum in the Redding Library’s community room, the audience of nearly 130 learned more about Reach Higher Shasta, a comprehensive effort that wants to turn around some troubling area statistics with the help of businesses, educators, parents and others.
While the few north state students who do go to a four-year college have the highest college graduation rate in the state, “the majority of our high school graduates are not doing well once they leave us,” said Tom Armelino, Shasta County superintendent of schools and one of three speakers at the forum.
According to information gathered by the National Student Clearinghouse, 41.9 percent of area students don’t enroll anywhere after high school, compared with a national average of 24 percent. Only 14 percent enroll in a four-year institution, and 44.1 percent in a two-year institution.
And of those entering Shasta College, the two-year community college in Redding, 75 percent need remediation courses in English and 84 percent in math. (At most colleges, students take placement tests at the start of their freshman year to determine if they can be placed in for-credit courses or if they require remedial courses to get up to speed.)
“That’s mostly because they’re not in the classes they need to be in high school,” said Armelino, who has served in his current post since 2006.
He referenced the “a-g” curriculum, courses a high school student must take and get a C or better in to be able to directly enter a four-year university. Only 19 percent of Shasta County students complete that curriculum, meaning “81 percent of our students can’t go to a four-year” directly out of high school, he said.
Recognizing the need to look more closely at the links between K-12 and postsecondary education in the north state, Armelino agreed to co-chair a Higher Education Task Force about two years ago with Lianne Richelieu-Boren, director of College OPTIONS in Redding and a speaker at Monday’s forum.
The Shasta County Department of Public Health recommended formation of the task force during its “Roots of Our Health” leadership summit in spring 2010, which examined some of the social conditions – including college-going rates – that make a community healthy.
The task force, which grew into the broader Reach Higher Shasta collaboration, has the goal that “Shasta County students will receive an education that prepares them for success, without remediation, in all postsecondary options with a focus on high skill and high-wage employment.”
Postsecondary options can include apprenticeships, certificate programs, trade schools, community colleges, and the military, as well as a four-year degree program, Richelieu-Boren noted.
With all 25 school districts in Shasta County involved in Reach Higher Shasta, the task force would like to see local businesses join the effort by offering internships, job shadows and mock interviews.
Nationally, the U.S. has dropped from No. 1 in the world in its percentage of college graduates to No. 15 during the almost 25-year span between 1985 and 2009, said forum speaker Jay Westover, chief learning officer of InnovatED and a consultant to California school districts (Canada is now No. 1). Yet the percentage of American jobs requiring post-secondary education has increased from 34 percent in 1973 to 65 percent in 2009.
In addition, the level of literacy skills needed for jobs in many fields, including trade, construction and craftsman work, continues to increase.
“Students need connections to viable career paths,” Westover said. “Our community can be a great supporter in this – what are the careers we want our students to come back to?”
Making those real-world connections between education and careers is one area Reach Higher Shasta will focus on. Statistics show that earnings are significantly higher for those who have postsecondary degrees. Richelieu-Boren cited a study showing average weekly earnings for a high school graduate at $507, compared with $834 for those with an associate’s degree, $983 for a bachelor’s degree, and $1,174 for a master’s degree.
And the task force would like to see Shasta County students who attend college elsewhere return to the north state with skills and innovative business ideas. “That’s a huge part of our mission – the economic success of this region,” Richelieu-Boren said.
Much of Reach Higher’s focus is on figuring out how to help students decrease or avoid remedial coursework after graduation. The longer a student is in remediation, the less likely he or she is to continue with postsecondary education, speakers said.
Shasta College, one of the 20-some partners in Reach Higher Shasta, has been a leader in this area, Armelino said. The college’s strategies for reducing remediation include examining the validity of current assessment tests; exploring multiple measures for enrollment into transfer-level courses; implementing summer bridge programs; creating curriculum that helps mitigate the gaps; and collaborating with high schools to create courses for seniors that will reduce the need for remediation.
Educators and parents can start preparing students for success early. Westover mentioned the idea of having personalized graduation plans for middle-school students. “In middle school, kids are still trying to figure themselves out,” he said. “They’re not yet aware why it’s important to do well in high school or what careers they might consider. They kind of blindly walk into high school.”
By 10th grade, students are starting to decide whether to pursue more rigorous college-prep courses (the “a-g” curriculum) or take classes just to graduate, he said.
Armelino, who has a son in his junior year of high school, said he is seeing this play out firsthand, and “some of what I’ve seen has shocked and surprised me,” he said. While he and his wife are making sure their son takes the right courses and is passing them, some of his son’s friends are not.
“Often kids are choosing the path of least resistance, and parents are allowing them, not understanding it will impact them after graduation,” he said. “Our main interest is to make sure folks are educated so they can make educated decisions about what should happen with their students.”
Academic partners of Reach Higher Shasta also are examining assessment and curriculum options to help reduce the remediation rate.
For example, they’ve talked about having a minimum curriculum starting in 9th grade, where all students have to take the “a-d” part of the “a-g” curriculum, Armelino said. They’re also looking at having common assessments across districts to determine student readiness for college-prep courses such as algebra.
Giving teachers and staff the support they need as they prepare students for a higher level of rigor is also a priority. “Once concern we have is that we need to be prepared to help students who struggle when we raise the bar,” he said.
Making the community aware of Reach Higher Shasta’s initiatives is part of the task force’s commitment to educating parents and others, Armelino said. Businesses and others can display specialized logos indicating their involvement and support. (A News Café will partner with Reach Higher Shasta by including a special section on its website.)
“Our goal is to make sure students are successful beyond high school,” Armelino said.
Learn more about Reach Higher Shasta and how you can get involved at www.reachhighershasta.com.
The Women’s Fund forum on Reach Higher Shasta will be broadcast by KIXE-TV on Channel 9 on Thursday, April 19 at 9 p.m.
Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.