2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner: Spokane County, Washington

July 25, 2014
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Despite being home to five higher education institutions and biomedical and manufacturing employers, less than 60 percent of children in Spokane, Washington were graduating from high school in 2006; that rate was somewhat higher county-wide but too many children were dropping out. Community leaders questioned what was causing the low graduation rate and what could be done to improve it.

“The health department came out with a report that strongly linked lack of education to health,” said the Executive Director of Priority Spokane, Alisa May. “Having that kind of data on hand about our county motivated many people to go to work.” 

Since then, improving education outcomes has been a primary focus because leaders see it as the key to breaking the cycles of poverty and poor health. Community leaders from local government, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and academia formed a collaborative called Priority Spokane to focus on improving educational attainment. 

Analysis of local public school data showed there are clear predictors—such as attendance, behavior, and course completion—that can indicate as early as third grade whether a child is likely to drop out before graduating high school. Spokane Public Schools developed an interactive dashboard to monitor these risk factors in real time and to facilitate early interventions. 

“Four or more unexcused absences mean that a seventh or eighth grader has only a 25-30 percent chance of graduating high school,” said May. “The Early Warning System allows an administrator or teacher to pull up records of individual students to immediately see how they are doing in different risk factors, like missing school.” 

The Early Warning System also provides information to Community Attendance Support Teams, comprised of educators, community members, and nonprofit representatives, who work with middle school students to resolve issues – such as bullying or lack of transportation – that may be impeding student success.

“As young people and their families get re-engaged, students are more likely to stay in school and create a much healthier life for themselves than if they had dropped out,” May said. 
In addition to improving educational outcomes,  the Spokane STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) network works in close collaboration with employers to assess the skills needed for high-demand, high-paying jobs — and to provide the resources to educate and train  students with those very skills.

“One of the most important things to us in Spokane is to attract new businesses to our community,” said May. “Developing and improving the workforce is a priority.”

Spokane Valley Tech, for example, is the collaborative effort of four county schools that have come together, with support from a local energy company, to provide career development opportunities for students in the STEM disciplines.

The planning committee for Spokane Valley Tech met with area businesses to learn about in-demand jobs, and then surveyed students to discover their interests. As a result, the curriculum now offers Aerospace & Advanced Manufacturing, Sports Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Finance. Spokane Valley Tech is meeting the educational needs of high school students and workforce development needs of Spokane businesses.

“The connection to health through STEM-based learning is that students become more educated, they are able to get into fields that pay them well, and they will have more resources than their families had,” May said. “We can start changing the intergenerational poverty to intergenerational success.”

In less than five years, because of collaborative efforts to improve educational attainment through initiatives like Spokane Valley Tech and the Early Warning System, Spokane Public Schools’ graduation rate increased from 59 percent to 79.5 percent, while the county-wide rate is now higher than 80 percent. 

Learn more about Spokane's efforts to improve health at RWJF.org.

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