Crook County wants to see more high school students go to college

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 08. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Crook County High School senior Jimmy Thommason thinks it’s important for his classmates to continue their education past the 12th grade.

But Jimmy, who is 18, is not planning to go straight to college or trade school. He is going into the Air Force, he said, because he wants to join the military and take time to figure out what he wants to do long term.

“I just don’t have a desire (to go to college), I guess,” he said. “I didn’t want to study something and then find out that I hated it.”

Historically, Crook County has had low rates of high school graduates going on to attend a college or university, with less than a third of the class continuing school. Now, school administrators are trying to instill the attitude that every student needs to plan on some postsecondary education – whether it be community college, vocational training, the military or a four-year university.

“We’re currently doing our best to let every kid know that they need to plan on getting more education beyond high school – we’re making it a focus,” Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said.

“We’re making it basically a standard repertoire that we’re talking to kids about what are you going to do beyond high school.”

Several students interviewed this week said they are getting that message, and they agree that further education is necessary in today’s job market. But several also said they are not planning to attend college immediately after high school.

A changing economic structure

Out of the class of 2006, about 16 percent of students went on to two-year colleges and 16 percent went to four-year colleges, out of a class of about 200, guidance counselor Jvon Danforth said. One student went to Harvard University. And Golden said last year was an average year for college attendance.

By comparison, about 45 percent of Madras High School’s class of 2006 said they planned to go to college at the time of graduation, said Cindy Harris, executive assistant for the Jefferson County School District. In the Bend-La Pine Schools, about 75 percent of students on average continue their education past high school each year.

Part of the explanation for Crook’s lower numbers may come from the county’s traditional job base in the manufacturing and timber industries, several administrators said.

The last of Crook County’s five timber mills closed in 2001, although some have since converted to making secondary wood products. Prineville’s other defining industry, Les Schwab Tire Centers, announced in December that it will move its corporate headquarters to Bend.

“For many years you could leave school and work in the woods as a timber faller or work in the mills and really earn a pretty good family-wage job without needing higher education,” Crook County schools Superintendent Steve Swisher said. “But those lower-skill, high-wage jobs have disappeared in our economy.”

Several students said that the increasing cost of a college education is a deterrent for many people.

“I know a lot of people that they just don’t want to (go to college) because it’s kind of expensive and a lot of people here come from low-income families, and it’s just not stressed a lot in families,” Jimmy said.

Most of the Crook County students who attend college go into the Oregon University System, Golden said. Tuition and fees for the 2006-07 school year for Oregon residents attending Oregon State University are about $3,200 a year, up 4 percent from the 2005-06 year, according to the OUS Web site. Eastern Oregon University costs about $3,000 a year, an increase of 10 percent over last year, and the University of Oregon is up 5 percent to about $3,150 a year.

David Schass, a senior, said that he intends to work during college to help pay for tuition. He plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

“One of the biggest concerns on my mind is how am I going to be able to get through four years without going into $200,000 in debt,” David, 18, said.

Making college a reality

Golden said the school is taking a number of steps to put college attendance within reach for all students. Students can earn college credit through courses offered at the school in partnership with Central Oregon Community College, a program available at several Central Oregon high schools.

Administrators are giving students more one-on-one time with teachers through a daily class called Student Connections, which started last fall. The goal of the class is to provide an environment where teachers can “mentor, monitor and motivate” students, Golden said.

He added that he would like to eventually see 70 percent of Crook County High School’s graduates go on to college.

“What the community college is trying to do is … kind of build that momentum so kids can visualize and see, ‘I’ve already got 18 credits, I should go to college; I’m almost through my first year – it’s not impossible,'” he said.

Vicki Crawford, a senior, said that teachers are also stressing the importance of college.

“A lot of our active teachers who really want us to succeed, they stress how important it is for us to get some or of education after high school,” Vicki, 17, said.

Freshman Arick Morrell said he has already planned out his four years in high school to prepare for college. Arick, 14, said he hopes to go into medicine.

“I’m taking all the advanced classes I can and I’m going to have all my credits done by my junior year, and then I’ll start taking college classes by my senior year instead of not doing anything senior year,” Arick said.

He added that many students seem to “screw off senior year, which is not real smart, I don’t think.”

Swisher, the superintendent, said that the school district is starting a program in the spring to allow all students to take the ACT, a college entrance exam, for free. The school is emphasizing the ACT because it provides more data about students than the SAT.

Swisher added that, as the first person in his family to go to college, he has a special interest in raising the high school’s college attendance rates.

“I was one of those myself in my family, personally, so I have a little bit of heart of that in terms of just making sure our kids have the opportunity to do this,” he said.

Several students praised efforts to raise awareness among freshmen and sophomores about the college entrance exams and federal financial aid forms. But they added that they do not think the Student Connections class always achieves its goal of engaging students with a mentor. Some called it “pointless” and described it as mostly a study hall.

The emphasis on the importance of postsecondary education seems to be getting through to many students, although data on the class of 2007 will not be available until after graduation.

“I don’t know that many seniors that aren’t going to college,” Jimmy said. “There’s maybe 15 or 20 that aren’t trying to go.”

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