On her first day of school, Michelle Lopez carefully fills her new backpack with five pencils in the front pocket, pens in another, and post-its and a rainbow of highlighters in the rest. Oh, and all 20 pounds of her books.
Once on campus, she nervously opens and folds her campus map and glances around to get her bearings. Here in Pullman her freshman class holds 2,800 students, about 800 more people than her entire hometown of Bridgeport, Washington. But she still manages a show of poise as she makes her way through the crowded halls of the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education.
Petite, 18, with shoulder-length brown hair and wide grey-green eyes, she wears jeans, white tennis shoes, and a pink blouse. Michelle is not a typical student. She was valedictorian of her high school. Here at Washington State University she is a Regents Scholar. Because of her academic achievements in high school a portion of her tuition is paid for two years. And she is the first person in her family of migrant workers who came to Washington in the 1990s to enroll in a four-year American university.
But Michelle Lopez is not the only reason the Bridgeport School District should be proud.
In the late 1990s the district suddenly went from being mostly white to mostly migrant Hispanic, as a growing tree-fruit industry attracted new workers. Then there were some bad years of low test scores and rocketing dropout rates.
But the district was quick to recover. Instead of lowering expectations for students who might be struggling with English, the teachers adjusted their efforts to provide them with basic skills to carry them into more complicated courses like honors English and high-level science, classes that helped Lopez get in to WSU with a scholarship.
For all this and more, the district has won national recognition. In 2004, the elementary school won a National Title 1 Distinguished School Award from the U.S. Department of Education for its gains in student achievement.
That same year, the elementary was one of six schools to earn the Washington State Academic Achievement Award. Last year the high school won it’s own federal Distinguished School Award for student gains in math and reading over the past two years. All this happened under the leadership of superintendent Gene Schmidt, a WSU graduate student.
Just a couple of weeks after Michelle’s first day of college, more than 60 freshmen file into the gymnasium at Bridgeport High School.
“You’re all geckos,” says principal Steve Pointer ’88, who is waiting for them in a crisp white shirt, tie, and black pants. They’re going to cling to the walls of the high school for the next “three years and nine months,” and then they’re going to graduate, he says.
They try to look bored, even when he explains that the statistics are against them, that in recent history 20 to 30 percent of students who began ninth grade at Bridgeport did not finish high school. “That’s one in three of you,” he says. “That’s not something we want.” They frown. “We’re here today to show you what it feels like to graduate.”
Someone cues up Pomp and Circumstance, and after scooting to one end of the gym, Pointer and his vice principal start a stately march across the floor; right-together, left-together. Then they wobble. Just a little. And the students erupt in laughter.
Once it’s their turn, the girls move self-consciously across the blond wood basketball court. Then the football players, some smaller than the girls, follow in their jerseys, off-rhythm and uncoordinated, half smiles on their faces.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pointer calls to the empty bleachers behind him, “welcome to the 95th graduating class of Bridgeport High School. The graduating class of 2009 are all going to college.” He turns to the students now arranged on the opposite bleachers. “Please stand, if you are all going to further your education past high school.” They do. Every one of them.
While people have lived in Bridgeport for more than 130 years, it has always been a somewhat fragile town.
In the 1870s, the site was home to a Chinese community that had come to find gold in the Columbia River. The Chinese settlers gave way to the Second United States Infantry, which later determined the site wasn’t ideal and moved west to Chelan and then east to establish Fort Spokane. The soldiers were followed by settlers who came first to mine and then to farm.
Then a town was built with the support of East Coast investors. A flour mill went up, a hotel, and houses, and work was started on a school. But in the early 1900s, the benefactors ran dry, and development was halted. It was just the first of many economic slumps for the speck of a community.
The local farmers realized the spot along the river was ideal for growing fruit trees. They irrigated with water from the Columbia and Foster Creek. Their fruit was shipped downriver on steamboats, and money came back through the bank.
The population grew to 500 and stayed that way until 1949, when President Truman authorized the first $5 million to pay for a dam across the Columbia just north of town. The first major construction drew hundreds of new residents—builders, engineers, dam workers—creating a boom for Bridgeport that was repeated in the 1970s with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expansion of what had been named the Chief Joseph Dam.
But those were the good years. Bridgeport was never a wealthy community, and when the money leaves, there’s little to fall back on. With apple prices low and no new dam projects in sight, the median household income now lingers around $25,500. Thirty percent of the population and more than 40 percent of the children live below the poverty line. According to the U.S. Census, of the 2,060 residents of Bridgeport, more than half today are Hispanic.
The newest children in the community come with migrant families either directly from Mexico or from California through the Wenatchee area, according to the Migrant Student Data and Recruitment Office in Sunnyside, Washington. Poverty is just one hurdle. They also struggle with language and with fitting school into a migrant lifestyle.
Superintendent Gene Schmidt thinks about that constantly. He frets about how his students are living, eating, staying healthy—how their parents view the school, how the community views the families.
He tries to get a head start on the day by being one of the first on campus. But at seven one morning last fall, he was preceded by a third-grader who had been dropped off by a parent heading to work and had already crisscrossed the parking lot and playground twice, hungry for the companionship of classmates.
Schmidt, buttoned up in his half-sleeve shirt and earnest brown tie, noted the boy and then headed for his office. As children filtered in and the din on the playground reached a perfect pandemonium pitch, he sped back to his car with a teacher in tow. Schmidt fights on the front lines of truancy, trying to bring in as many of the community’s children as he can, even if it means going out from time to time and rounding them up himself. Some families are just so wrapped up in getting by, they don’t have time to realize the value of keeping their children in school, he says.
The district learned its lesson in the late 1990s, when prices for agriculture commodities plummeted and the dropout rate increased to 58 percent, as students left school to find work in nearby orchards and packing houses to help support their families.
Schmidt, who hired on at Bridgeport seven years ago, led the effort to bring the students back, promising their families that they would be getting skills that would serve them beyond fruit work. For a small district on a meager budget, that wasn’t an easy promise to keep. At its lowest point in the ’90s, the whole district owned only two computers.
But then the district started writing grant proposals, at least 10 a month. The philosophy: no grant was too small or too large to attempt.
Today there are computers at the fingertips of every high-school student. No one leaves Nancy Fisher’s ’78 high-school business class without computer training. Many of the kids are building and managing Web pages for themselves and others in town.
Looking to districts in California and Texas that have been dealing with similar issues for decades, Schmidt, Pointer, and others in the district reoriented the schools to better serve the changing student population. Bridgeport started offering elementary programs in Spanish during the summer. Then the district opened a day-long kindergarten program with teachers who speak both English and Spanish. The tots leave versed in the alphabet and able to count to 20.
Free breakfasts and lunches provide another incentive to come to school. The menu has been changed to include rice and beans, adjusting for the palate of the student body. The school has also hired America Reyes, an exchange teacher from Mexico who works alongside the local teachers in the high school.
And then there’s the basic business of teachers. First-grade teacher Katherine Myers ’73 draws out her sentences like slow syrup, sweet and rich. Her charges are rapt as she points to words in a story book.
Though she’s reading, she’s also watching, noting. Manuel is having trouble sitting still. Instead of chiding him, she looks to a neighbor. “Kevin, I like the way you’re paying attention. You’re going to know what to do,” she says. Manuel and a few others get the hint. Maybe she’s just following the first of the class rules posted on the dry-erase board: “Be nice to everyone.”
This reading time is crucial. Myers’s first-graders spend their mornings alternating between clusters of knee-high desks and the reading corner, where they settle into the soft carpet around her feet. Their goal this school year is simple: learn to read. It is the foundation for the next 12 years of education.
The effort is paying off. Last school year, 62 percent of the fourth-grade students were reading at the state standard, up from 48 percent just two years earlier and 20 percent in 1998.
It isn’t just the students who are learning. In spite of his busy schedule Schmidt has managed to find time to pursue a doctoral degree in education at WSU. “WSU’s task is to help us understand the theory,” he says. “We take that theory and put it into practice here in the district.”
“One of the things that makes this community neat is a willingness to try new things, sometimes radically different new things,” he says. The district has found creative ways to get and use grants, finding funding for projects on the school grounds, like building baseball dugouts. The work provided good summer jobs for the students and at the same time invested them with a sense of ownership of the schools, which in turn cut down on vandalism and truancy, notes Schmidt. The superintendent is especially proud of a USDA fruit and vegetable grant, which brought the school close to $30,000 for the purpose of providing students with fresh fruits and vegetables during afternoon recess every day.
In an effort to rekindle town pride, teachers and students have reestablished the annual Bridgeport Daze to celebrate the town’s history, taking up where local volunteers left off. And to ensure that it’s attended, they’ve scheduled it on graduation weekend.
The schools are really the heart of the town, and their success or failure will ultimately affect the community, says Schmidt, who’s also president of the chamber of commerce.
If the national awards and the improved test scores weren’t enough, Michelle Lopez is a sign that the district is doing things right—raising expectations, pushing students to work harder and take risks.
When Michelle was five, her family moved from California to an area northeast of Wenatchee. There they found a small town tucked alongside the Columbia River just beneath the Chief Joseph Dam, one with a school district, just a few businesses, and an affordable quality of life. “And we stayed,” says her mother, Gina Cruz. “Bridgeport was a calm town. It seemed like a good place to raise our children.”
Twelve years later, the family made another big move several weeks before Michelle started school, trading an address on Fisk Avenue in Bridgeport for a small house on Fisk Street in Pullman. Gina recognized an opportunity in Pullman for Michelle, as well as for herself and her youngest daughter, April. She’s looking for work, planning to take classes, and seeking ways to expand on her teaching and bookkeeping credentials from Mexico and her U.S. preschool teaching certification. Michelle’s opportunity at WSU has become an opportunity for everyone.
With a healthy class load of biology, psychology, theater, math, and world civilization, she has started down the path toward a psychology major. “I want to do counseling or something like it,” she says.
Her family and friends back home support Michelle and her choices, says her mother. “She’s such a hard worker.” Then in four simple words, Gina summarizes the philosophy the school district has applied to every one of its students so far: “She deserves this opportunity.”