Translating Absurd Aspirations Into High Graduation and College Acceptance Rates


November 17, 2015


The majority of what I believe about education is encompassed in these four phrases:

"Those of us with the most have to want for all kids what we want for our own kids."

"Focus like a laser."

"I gladly take choices away from 14-,15-,16-, and 17-year-old students
to give choices to 18-,19-,20- and 21-year-old adults."

"Set absurd aspirations."

Those beliefs have guided my thinking for the last 12 years at Corbett School District—a rural Oregon district that has grown from about 600 students to over 1,200 students during that time frame. When I started as an administrator at Corbett, we were a typical comprehensive high school with a history of some of the lowest high school test scores in Oregon. Funding was tight, and as the district with the least funding in Multnomah County, we had to make changes. The changes were easily justifiable given our horrible performance on assessments.

My children, Aurora and Zack, were ages 1 and 4 when I was contemplating making those changes. I wanted them to go to college and have as many choices as possible after high school. But, why wouldn’t I want that for all my students?

To make that a reality, I had to make changes at our high school. Experience has shown me that comprehensive high schools are never good at everything. Corbett, in particular, certainly wasn’t good at everything—other than posting poor test scores. So, we focused like a laser on becoming the best college-prep school in Oregon.

I set the absurd aspiration that every Corbett student would take two Advanced Placement (AP) courses because this was a conduit to college. This meant we had to abandon our comprehensive model. We gladly took choices away from 14- to 17-year-old students, to give them more choices once they left high school.

There was resistance; there was panic; there were arguments. There also was community unrest. But, with perseverance and fidelity to those four guiding beliefs, there was also positive change—change that I could never have predicted.

Now, when the average student leaves Corbett High School, he or she does so having taken roughly 11 AP courses. Every student takes the SAT test. Our graduation rate is around 90 percent. Roughly 80 percent of our students go on to a two-year or four-year college. Our high school has more than doubled in size, and we have a waiting list of hundreds of students wanting to go to school in our district.

We aren’t done. Our laser focus is still on college prep, but my new absurd aspiration is that we post a 100 percent on-time graduation rate; 100 percent of our students will be admitted to college; and their college will be 100 percent free!

Zack graduates next year; his peers will be the first class required to be admitted to college in order to graduate from Corbett High. I am sure they all will make it. I am not sure how we are going to get college tuition paid for 100 percent, but then again, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get every student to take an AP test. I do know that last year Corbett students generated over $750,000 in free college tuition through our AP and dual-credit programs. Perhaps, by the time Aurora graduates, we will have met that absurd aspiration too.

In closing, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you want for your own kids?
  • Does your focus at school match what you want for your own kids?
  • What choices do you need to take away from students to make that a reality?
  • What absurd aspirations will drive your school forward so every kid has the opportunities you want for your own children?

Randy Trani and others made presentations during REL Northwest's November 18, 2015 webinar, "Overcoming Challenges To Effectively Use Data In Rural Schools."