Not Your Typical Rez School


Toppenish High School in Toppenish, Washington is defying the statistics of typical reservation schools. With a 90.4 percent graduation rate in 2009–2010 and high student achievement in STEM—science, technology, mathematics and engineering—classes, the school has earned the distinction of being named a STEM Lighthouse School by the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The school, one of only five chosen in the state, is located on the Yakama Nation reservation. Of its 744 students, 86.5 percent are of Mexican ancestry and 9.2 percent are American Indian. Most of the students—99 percent—qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

In 2010, the state legislature approved a bill that recognizes districts and schools that find new ways to improve the teaching and learning of STEM subjects. The intention is to prepare young Washingtonians for engineering, medical and scientific careers; increase the number of engineering students in the state’s colleges and universities; and strengthen the state’s aerospace industry by increasing the number of people trained to design and assemble airplanes.

Toppenish teaches a STEM curriculum developed by Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that has provided curriculum to more than 4,200 schools, and trained more than 10,500 teachers. There were 71 students enrolled in engineering courses at Toppenish in 2009–2010; that number grew to 208 students in 2010–2011. The number of engineering students dipped to 187 this year after biomedical sciences was added, which 268 students are studying.

Lighthouse schools receive $20,000 and mentor other schools that are creating STEM programs. Some of them teach small learning groups using hands-on, project-based curricula. Others partner with skill centers, colleges and local businesses to connect learning beyond the classroom. Still others use field-based applied learning by using community, historical and natural resources in their area.

“These classes are awesome,” said senior Luis Gonzalez, 17. “They are really different from the environment of the regular classroom. It’s all about focusing on what you need to do.”

Gonzalez should know; at one point, he and his classmates in Introduction to Engineering Design constructed a step to attach to hospital beds, making it easier for nurses to treat patients in cardiac or respiratory arrest. After three years of STEM classes, Gonzalez has changed his intended college major from architecture to civil engineering. He plans to enroll at Seattle University in September.

“[The students] give up electives to take these classes,” Principal Trevor Greene said. “They are seeing real-world applications of these subjects through activities and projects. And it’s permeating the whole school.” For instance, medical terminology is taught as part of Spanish-language classes; the school also offers a technical writing course.

“Over the past two and a half years, we’ve seen our math enrollment increase dramatically—a 71 percent increase in trigonometry, 226 percent increase in precalculus, 22 percent increase in calculus,” said Greene. He also noted a 170 percent increase in chemistry and 179 percent increase in anatomy and physics.

The success of the program, Greene said, has much to do with a perfect storm of factors. Three teachers are products of high schools on the reservation, so they know the challenges many students face.

The curriculum is hands-on and challenging. “We have some students who struggle, and we have a great number who do pass,” he said. “As long as they have the drive and know they’re going to have to work hard, we let them in.”

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said that Toppenish and the other Lighthouse schools “will serve as great models for the rest of the state.” And Greene agrees: “I believe everyone wants to be part of something great.”