Bremerton High School Sees Big Shift in College Readiness with Advisories and Student-Led Conferences

Bremerton High School, a public high school in the Bremerton School District, has seen significant gains in student achievement and created a culture of college and career readiness as a result of a grant from College Spark Washington. College Spark funds programs that help low-income students become college-ready and earn postsecondary degrees.
College Spark has given grants to schools throughout Washington state to implement AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) and/or Navigation 101 (now called Career Guidance Washington, or, CGW), curriculum designed to increase students’ college and career readiness.
We had the chance to speak to counselor Chris Swanson and principal John Polm of Bremerton High School about the implementation, impact, and sustainability of Career Guidance Washington as a result of the College Spark grant. (Read about another Washington principal’s tips for building a college and career culture here).

Schools that implement Career Guidance Washington have the following components:

  • Personalizing–Curriculum-Driven Advisories
  • Planning–Portfolio: High School and Beyond Plan
  • Demonstrating–Student-Led Conferences
  • Empowering–Student-Driven Scheduling
  • Evaluating–Data Collection & Analysis

Curriculum-Driven Advisory. CGW components include implementation of an advisory system. (The team at Getting Smart has also written about the importance of advisory). When Bremerton first added an advisory system, students and teachers weren’t necessarily taking the time to utilize advisory to its potential.
Bremerton’s current advisory model is 4 days a week. Says Swanson, “Advisory programs have come and gone at some schools. It has been a constant here, and we are trying to respond to what unique needs we have at our school and we are trying to make the advisory program part of the answer to what are we doing about those needs.”  
When asked whether the changes the grant have made were sustainable, Polm said, “Absolutely! It’s cultural and it’s structural — the fact that we have credit-bearing advisory is an example of how structure supports the culture. Advisory has also been a game changer in terms of buy-in with the advisory, because kids see a direct link between what they were doing in English and other classes and what they were doing in advisory. So anytime we show kids that something is integrated, we are supporting each aspect of our school.”
Portfolios and Parents. The school also has a portfolio requirement and a culminating senior presentation. Says Swanson, “We scaffold starting in 9th grade with student-led conferences twice a year. We have a fall academic goal setting conference and spring student-led conference that is connected to the course registration process. This has also been highly successful in engaging parents. We have had 23% parent involvement increase to 82% parent involvement and that has been sustained. Those major factors we would probably not have today if not for the support from College Spark.”
A significant change in the way the students experience school is the senior presentation, which is required to earn credit in advisory and as a graduation requirement. Polm says, “Navigation 101 is part of the culture of our school — it’s a good experience for 95% of the kids. It might be a hIgh-stress moment when they are presenting in front of a panel about where they are headed and how they are prepared for that, but it is a rewarding experience as well.”
The staff all agree, the work being done in advisory and at student-led conferences has increased student engagement in school.
Student-Led Conferences. Swanson credits CGW with increasing student engagement: “If you walk into a student-led conference and/or student presentation, you see a level of engagement that would not exist without it. In the fall, you see students taking ownership in leading that process and communicating their goals. Before, if the parent came to the conference, it was completely teacher driven. This is student-driven. That’s engagement for sure. Senior presentations demonstrate keen interests in their accomplishments and future aspirations.”
The school has also seen increased student engagement through the class registration processes. Students, said Swanson, have a much better idea of what classes they want to take because of advisory. The students register for what they want and are choosing classes that are right for them and their goals.
Other elements of Bremerton’s college and career readiness can be seen in gains made in student achievement through data:
College ready transcripts. Bremerton has experienced an increase in college ready transcripts. The high school went from 34% of student transcripts meeting requirements to now 54%. Says Polm: “That outcome is a strong component of how we are measuring success.”
Increased graduation rate. The school’s graduation rate went from approximately 53% to approximately 80% in a 10-year period of time. Swanson said, “That is a game changer that is reflective of many efforts here, and Navigation was a key part of it. At the same time we were developing our AP program and adopting standards-based grading. Navigation was one of the constants through that whole time period.”
Rigorous Classrooms. The school increased their number of Advanced Placement options from 3 to 12. There has been a significant increase in students taking more rigorous coursework related to their career path. Polm says, “In 2008, 40% students were taking chemistry. In 2014-15, it jumped to 59% and then 64% for the most recent grads (2016), we have had time for this whole system to take root…to get more students into those rigorous courses and be successful.”

What’s Next?

When we asked principal Polm about the sustainability of the gains made at Bremerton High School, he said Bremerton HS has paid a lot of attention to training teachers and creating strong leadership at the school: “Any change process takes a lot of work and leadership. We have worked with staff leaders; we have a committee that designs curriculum for advisory. This work has become individualized for our school.”
This blog is part of an ongoing series in partnership with College Spark Washington, an organization that funds programs aimed at helping low-income students become college-ready and earn postsecondary degrees, that profiles schools helping to prepare students for college and career.
For more, see:

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Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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