Six years ago, the White River School District was staring at lackluster test scores, a dismal on-time graduation rate of 51 percent and a dropout rate at 13 percent. About 4 percent of its graduating seniors were heading to post-high school ventures and scholarship money for those graduating totaled less than $300,000.
On top of that, the state was breathing down its neck for its financial situation.
“We were working hard, but we were frustrated,” Superintendent Tom Lockyer told the audience gathered at White River High School Nov. 28 for his State of the District address. The address coincided with the start of the Legislature’s special session to trim millions from the state budget, with much of those cuts directed at education.
As the district prepares to face more budget reductions and another year of declining enrollment, Lockyer wanted to take time to celebrate its success.
“I do know there are a lot of good things going on in the White River School District in the last several years,” he said.
District leaders have made a conscience decision to shift the culture from teaching to learning, ensure learning for all students at all levels and strengthen the district’s fiscal position.
In 2010, state test scores are up. White River elementary schools have earned distinction honors and the district is among the top 5 percent of high-performing districts in Washington. The dropout rate is at 2 percent with graduation rates nearly 90 percent and more than 90 percent of those graduates head to post-high school education. These days, graduating seniors are pulling in nearly $1 million in scholarships and the budget reserve is holding at 5 percent.
The district turned property into a tree farm that provides money for the capital facilities fund, as timber is selectively harvested.
White River’s work with Professional Learning Communities is a nationally-recognized program that brings close to 700 people through its doors from across the country to tour and learn about what’s happening in the district.
“The culture has changed,” Lockyer told his audience, which was primarily staff members, “and it’s because of your commitment.”
It doesn’t matter, he said, if it’s in the classroom, central office or bus garage – all have contributed to changes in culture.
“I don’t think, back then, the board knew how long it would take to turn the culture around and we still have some work to go,” Lockyer said.
The district will continue to face declining enrollment and state budget reductions. Leaders will continue to ask for commitment and flexibility from the staff and a willingness to embrace change for the benefit of student learning.
But, come July, Lockyer will not be the one asking for that commitment. The seven-year White River School District leader announced his retirement at the end of the program and announced the board has selected Deputy Assistant Superintendent Janel Keating to fill his seat.
“The timing is right,” Lockyer said with a lump in his throat as he thanked his wife, leadership team, school board and those in attendance.