Umatilla fosters culture of success to inspire students and promote graduation
Umatilla High’s Anthony Ibarra (left) and Anthony Borchert work together to stack game cubes at the FIRST Robotics Competition PNW District Championship in early April, while lead mentor Kyle Sipe provides advice. Umatilla’s “Team Confidential” sports a spy motif for competitions. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
FIRST Robotics Competition games open with a chance for teams to score points if their robot can move independently from preprogrammed instructions.
With little help other than online videos, the Umatilla High School team’s programmers, senior Skyler Stokoe and sophomore Naomie Wyckoff, taught themselves the necessary coding language. But time after time, the robot just sat there.
Finally, at a March competition, the robot sped forward. Stokoe and Wyckoff were so happy they started crying.
“When I got that, I was on top of the world,” Stokoe said.
Building that culture of success is helping raise Umatilla School District’s graduation rate, said Superintendent Heidi Sipe. The mostly low-income community along Interstate 82 and the Columbia River had an 81.7 percent graduation rate for 2016-17. The Oregon average was 76.7 percent.
Nearly 25 percent of Umatilla K-12 students participate in robotics, the highest percentage participation of any school district in the nation. Yet Sipe says that Umatilla doesn’t “do robotics because of robots.”
“We do robotics because it gives our kids a chance to see different careers, to see different things, to travel,” she said. “Those are a lot of opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“Robotics gave Umatilla kids a chance to know what it feels like to win.”
Culture of success
Umatilla bombards its students with messages about what success looks like and how to get there.
The class “Path to Scholarships” inspired Junior Alizay Rodriguez to “find my purpose.” She wants to work in medicine. She said college nights, special events at school and teacher lectures have taught her about the grim statistics for dropouts, the importance of SATs and ACTs, and what college might look like.
She is taking advantage of the school’s extensive dual-credit program, which allows her to take college-level classes for free. She has struggled with the harder classes but relishes the challenge.
“It makes you feel good that you have done something that is harder than what you normally would have done,” she said.
Taking college-credit classes in high school makes Umatilla High junior Alizay Rodriguez (right) more confident she will be able to handle college courses. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
High school students can earn an Associate of Arts Oregon Transfer degree, a two-year degree accepted by all Oregon colleges. Last year, six students earned the AAOT degree, according to Umatilla High School Principal Bob Lorence. The students participated in their high school graduation at Umatilla and then a few days later went to Blue Mountain Community College’s Pendleton campus for a second graduation ceremony.
Students see their peers earning college credits for free and they want to take advantage of that, Lorence said.
“It’s become part of the culture,” he said.
Umatilla’s economic struggles have opened the door to grant opportunities, Lorence said.
Grant-supported programs include the district’s free after-school STEM Academy. K-12 students receive lessons in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as well as meals and bus rides home well into the evening. High school students can earn money, volunteer hours and experience teaching younger students.
Umatilla has also tapped into the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) and College Possible, programs aimed at helping low-income students reach college.
“These kids are hungry for anything we throw at them,” Lorence said.
The Umatilla robot did not perform as well as hoped at the FIRST Robotics Competition PNW District Championship in early April, but the team earned one of three chairman’s awards, which carry an invitation to the world championships April 18-21 in Houston. The chairman’s award is FIRST’s most prestigious award, given to the team with the most measurable positive impact on its team and its community over the long term. This was the second time Umatilla earned the championship award, and the team has five regional chairman’s awards in its seven years.
The team is 53 percent young women and 47 percent underrepresented minorities. Year-round participation includes thousands of hours of volunteer and community work, and high school members mentor and advise younger FIRST teams. Team members speak passionately of their desire to further their educations as well as give back to their community.
Umatilla competes against programs with far more professional and financial resources, but that makes the team’s accomplishments all the sweeter, Stokoe said. Building an impressive robot instills confidence.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not just some kid from a small town. I can actually do things,’” she said.
Superintendent Sipe said the robotics team and the college-credit program have changed the school’s culture. Students see their peers’ accomplishments and they start dreaming bigger dreams, she said.
“Once you can turn the corner on expectations, the academic piece comes along with it,” she said. “So much of academics is really confidence.”
Senior Giovani Armenta works construction during the summer and at a local store during the school year. He works until 10:45 p.m. most school nights and eight hours on the weekend because his family needs the money, he said.
Since he was a freshman, Armenta has been driven to earn the AAOT because he sees education as his ticket to a better life.
His junior year, though, he almost let it slip away. He started missing school and getting in trouble. And then he failed a college-level class, putting his AAOT degree in danger. The classes are free if a student passes, but students must pay if they fail.
His desire to earn the degree was the driving force that got him back on track, Armenta said.
He wants to be in construction engineering management and build houses and roads. A school career fair introduced Armenta to a Washington State Department of Transportation project engineer, who told him about helpful internships.
“It’s a learning experience,” said Armenta, who has been accepted to Oregon State University. “I don’t want to be making minimum wage the rest of my life.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA