11:21 a.m. PST February 12, 2016
This story was changed to clarify the percentage of students that graduate from Willamette Academy after starting as eighth graders.
Willamette University created Willamette Academy in 2001 with the goal of making college more accessible for first-generation students.
But with a college graduation rate much lower than expected, the university and academy are trying a new model.
Instead of enrolling about 225 students into several programs, the academy will serve 40 students in 10th through 12th grades. It also will require them to attend Willamette University; previously, students could go on to any college.
“We have a responsibility, if we are going to have this program, to run it effectively,” said Adam Torgerson, a spokesperson for Willamette University.
For some, the program has been successful. Its students take their regular classes at Salem-Keizer schools, then can attend the academy for tutoring, mentoring, college counseling, financial aid guidance and other skills training.
Between 2010 and 2014, all students who participated in after-school, weekend and summer programs graduated from high school, former academy director Michele Gray said in a previous interview with the Statesman Journal.
Additionally, between 2007 and 2014, more than 200 went to college.
But in the most recent class of Willamette Academy students who attended Willamette and could have graduated, fewer than half did.
For students who graduated from the academy between 2007 and 2009, 42 percent attended a two- or four-year college, but only 22 percent graduated.
Part of the problem, administrators say, is a lack of support for the students once they are in college.
By creating a “pipeline” from the academy to the university, Willamette will be able to give additional support to academy graduates during their first two years of college — the time some experts said students are at the highest risk of dropping out.
The new model also helps the academy better track which students attend and graduate college.
The changes have drawn criticism from community members.
After an information session on the changes was held Saturday, people took to social media.
Many people shared a newly designed “R.I.P. W.A. (Willamette Academy)” picture on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with “Smells like institutional racism” written at the bottom.
Administrators said much of the response comes from a lack of understanding.
“We are doing them a better service (with the new model),” said Marlene Moore, a dean and vice president of academic affairs at the university.
Currently, 150 students have access to Willamette Academy, and 75 have access to external programs offered by the academy. However, the number of those who actually utilize the program is far lower, according to administrators.
Torgerson said, in general, about one third of students accepted into the academy as eighth graders do not make it through the academy, meaning they do not complete the academy through their senior year and graduate from the program.
He said the new model will provide a “deeper, more focused” program for its students.
“The university is contributing more, investing more,” he said. “This is a program change, not a program cut. We’re doing everything we are doing under the current program, plus tapping additional faculty and staff for fundraising support and for additional campus engagement.”
Currently the university contributes more than $90,000 annually indirectly to the academy — which includes things such as staff, materials, and space — as well as $70,000 per year in endowment revenue. It is not yet clear how much more will be spent under the new model, Torgerson said.
Additionally, all Willamette Academy students will have their full financial need met if they attend Willamette University. This includes the students who graduated from the academy previously and are currently enrolled at the university.
Financial need is defined by the U.S. News and World Report as “the amount of a student’s total cost of attendance that isn’t covered by the expected family contribution or outside grants and scholarships.”
Torgerson said the average need-based grant and scholarship award from Willamette is more than $40,000 per student per year.
For the students who might otherwise have gone to the academy and now won’t, the university and academy are partnering with the Salem-Keizer School District.
Those students will be able to take part in the district’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and Access to Student Assistance Program In Reach of Everyone (ASPIRE) programs. Each of the 11 middle schools and six high schools has an AVID program.
When the Willamette Academy started, its participants were prohibited from working in those programs.
Just as the academy offers unique opportunities — such as close proximity and exposure to a college campus and college students — AVID and ASPIRE provide their own benefits as well, university and academy officials said.
In AVID, each student will have professional tutors, something the academy can’t offer.
Additionally, the students in AVID and ASPIRE are able to remain at their schools, making transportation less difficult for the parents; receive daily attention from trained professionals; and learn from school-wide curriculum.
The new Willamette Academy approach is inspired by Willamette University alumna Jacqueline Rushing’s Young Scholars Program in California.
Rushing who is the interim executive director of the academy, said she wants the new model to reflect the initial mission of the academy and apply to every student the academy works with.
“I want Willamette Academy to mean something — not just at Willamette, but to the whole community,” she said. “I want it to be a community program, one of which everyone can be proud.”
Rushing, founder and CEO of the Young Scholars Program, said the change will help the students both access college and be successful there.
In Rushing’s Young Scholars Program, 74 percent of students graduate from college in four years, and 95 percent graduate in five years.
“There are more challenges than just financial aid for students of color,” she said. “We are not only removing the financial aid barrier, but helping with the other barriers as well.”
College prep for these students, Rushing and Moore said, isn’t just about test preparedness, but how to engage, how to participate.
”We are not abandoning those kids,” Rushing said. “We have a responsibility to do better.”
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