Superintendent Tom Seigel re-engages district older dropouts

Graduation rates have risen above the state average in Washington’s Bethel School District. At the same time, Superintendent Tom Seigel has worked aggressively to convince a growing number of dropouts to return to class.

The district, the state’s 16th largest with over 18,000 students, is an urban-suburban mix, covering more than 200 square miles with very limited public transportation.

Siegel’s administration formed the Bethel Acceleration Academy to offer skills coaching, individual attention, online classes and flexible schedules to 18- to 21-year old former students, many of whom had fallen several years behind in credit accumulation.

In just three years, over 20 students have graduated from the program, with over 100 expected to complete it this school year.

1. Break down the key statistics of your district.

  • Student population:
    • Enrollment: 19,112 students
    • Ethnic percentages: 57% Caucasian, 8% African American, 16% Hispanic, 5% Asian, 10% multi-racial
    • Languages: 28 different languages spoken in the district, including Spanish (80% of ELL students), Russian, Samoan, Vietnamese and others
  • Number of schools: 28 schools, including 16 elementary schools, 1 elementary online academy, 1 school of choice (K8), 6 middle schools, 3 comprehensive senior high schools, 1 alternative high school, and 1 credit recovery/skills center
  • Number of staff: 2,343 total, 1,122 full-time educators
  • Percentage of students that are free/reduced: 49%
  • Graduation rate: 84.4%
  • District spending per student: $ 8,996 for instructional spending, $ 2,127 operational spending

2. Tell us about recent initiatives that you're particularly proud of.

Our graduation rate was 84.4 percent for 2015-16, about 6 percent above the state average and a nearly 15 percent increase in the last three years. Our three comprehensive high schools are at more than 90 percent for the five-year graduation rate.

We are especially proud of our efforts to re-engage kids who have dropped out. Bethel Acceleration Academy, currently in the beginning of its third year, is for kids who are over 18 who had dropped out of high school. This is their last chance to salvage their high school career with an actual high school diploma rather than going for a GED later.

The academy’s flexible hours enable them come back and work through their studies in non-traditional settings when they have the time. The state will pay until they are 21. We offer some online courses in addition to a lot of individual attention with mentors and teachers at the academy. Part of the program focuses on life and coping skills as well as engaging the students in planning what they will do after they earn their diploma.

Some of these kids come in so credit-deficient that they are two to three years behind. We have had under 25 who have graduated. We currently work with 200 students in the program, with about 100 having made significant progress to graduate within the next year.

3. What are the next big challenges you plan to tackle?

We had major bonds in 2001—$75 million with a $25 million state match—and again in 2006. The latter was $250 million with local and state support. We will also be replacing two high schools that are need ofexpansion. But we are continuing to experience growth; we’ve grown by 1,300 students just in the last three years.

Our current district count is 19,112 students but we are expected to grow to nearly 23,000 in the next 20 years. So we are going to be packed in 10 years despite creating nearly $500 million worth of new or modernized buildings in the last 13 years. We will definitely end up with larger class sizes unless we get another new bond approved.

4. How has your DALI membership helped you and your district?

It has been particularly helpful in gauging how education is changing at a national level by speaking with other district leaders across the country. Being a part of DALI has also helped me to learn best practices to move our district toward technology integration and focus less on traditional textbooks—including how to engage in the process and what pitfalls to avoid.

The networking and workshops were very useful to help me brainstorm about how to implement, and the likely areas of concerns. That is no small feat as we were spending $20 million in technology over a four-year period to change infrastructure.