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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Story of Granger shows caring can pay dividends

 

The tiny nonprofit that over the past 13 years has enhanced the lives of families, particularly the children, in the mostly Hispanic Yakima Valley Community of Granger has provided growing evidence that caring can pay dividends.

Sharing the story of the launch and growth of the little nonprofit, born spontaneously at a Thanksgiving table in 2003 as Bellevue businesswoman Joan Wallace and her sister in law Janet Wheaton fretted about the Granger children going hungry during the holidays, has become my Thanksgiving offering for the past half-dozen years.

It's the kind of story that deserves being shared anew, particularly since each year brings new successes and new chapters of the story for the small 501c3 called Families of Granger.

But the visibility Granger’s schools and the community’s families have gained over the past year could not have been imagined by its most committed supporters. What’s happened in Granger has become a success story that deserves replicating in other communities where need abounds.

The dividends for the community and those who have supported the annual plea from Wallace to her email friends and, for the past couple of years, including the letter signed by Wheaton, were the Granger middle school establishing the best attendance record in the state. And following that, Granger schools being honored with the first Innovations in Education award.

From a mediocre attendance record typical of the schools down the length of the Yakima Valley and in most of rural Washington, schools in the Granger district for the 2014-2015 school year recorded a chronic absenteeism rate of 3.6 percent, more than four times better than the statewide average of 16 percent.

Results for attendance marks for last year have not yet been announced by the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, and unfortunately no plaque or certificate has been presented to the school for its attendance performance in the 2014-2015 year.

That seems like a sadly missed opportunity to recognize a dramatic accomplishment for a district in a community that is 85 percent Hispanic or Latino and where nearly a third of the families live below the poverty level.

To become the school with the state’s lowest incidence of chronic absenteeism (defined as missing 18 or more school days during the year), Granger middle school, had an average that was more than twice as good as the rates in Bellevue, Mercer Island and Lake Washington districts.

The quest for perfect attendance at Granger middle school was keyed to "Every Child, Every Seat, Every Day," which became a mantra for students, teachers and parents that allowed the district to achieve the best attendance in the state last year.

The program was created by Alma Sanchez, a mother of three turned student at Heritage University, turned education entrepreneur working at the Granger schools. She conceived and, with Wheaton’s help, “sold” to the students and parents as a “we can do it” belief in the full-attendance program,

While there is no display of the top-attendance mark, the Innovations in Education Award “is proudly displayed in the trophy case at the entrance of the Granger Middle School,” Wheaton said. Wallace, Wheaton and Sanchez were also honored in the Innovations in Education Award for their roles in the attendance program.

The award, presented by the Discovery Institute and sponsored by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, the Seattle law firm of Patterson Buchanan, KCPQ Television and Sound Publishing, is intended to become an annual award, which will enhance the Granger School District’s visibility as the first recipient.

And Wheaton noted, in an email to me, that the state has “put a very big focus on attendance this year,” adding her sense that the recognition given to Granger for its remarkable accomplishment has had much to do with that state effort. She noted that a panel from Granger was invited to share their success and the program’s specific strategies at a regional forum held in Yakima this fall.

The Friends of Granger 501c3 was instrumental in the district being awarded a $15,000 grant from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, which has been renewed again last year and this year with the grant helping pay the costs of the attendance-incentive program.

Granger’s children are attracting broader attention as the women in Wallace’s Bellevue Presbyterian Church knitted hats, mittens and scarves and the importance of that was explained in a letter to the church women from a developmental preschool teacher in Granger.

“My children have not come to school with any sort of winter wear to cover their heads, necks, and hands.  I have noticed that these little hands and ears are very cold as our weather has been changing to colder temperatures.  My young students really appreciate your kind hearts,” she wrote.

“Melts your heart,” emailed Wallace as she sent me the picture of the youngsters in their hats.

“I never thought, when we started this, we would still be doing it and seeing how much has happened,” Wallace emailed me.

Then she shared, with obvious amusement: “(Husband) Bob looked at me at the outset and said: ‘you know if you start this, it won’t end. When you are working with a poor community, the needs never end. There’ll always be kids that need a new coat or their families are a little short.’”

And so it has been, to her obvious satisfaction.

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First Innovations in Education Award to Granger School District


The first "Innovations in Education" award will be presented this month to the little Yakima Valley school district of Granger where "Every Child, Every Seat, Every Day" became a mantra for students, teachers and parents that allowed the largely Hispanic district to achieve the best attendance in the state last year.

The Innovations in Education Award is being created by the Discovery Institute and will be presented to three women for their key roles in the attendance-success story of the Granger district, where almost a third of the students are from poverty-level homes.

The award will be presented May 19 at a dinner at the Rainier Club as part of the Discovery Institute's 25th anniversary. Presentation of the award will precede a panel discussion with three noted education-change advocates on the topic of "Creating a 21st Century Public Education System."

The women being honored with the award are:

--Alma Sanchez, mother of four, turned student at Heritage University, turned entrepreneur, who wrote and managed the grant for the attendance-incentive awards program at Granger Middle School.

--Janet Wheaton, recently retired Granger School District administrator, who worked with Sanchez and helped her with the application for the $20,000 grant that funded the incentive program, The "Every Child, Every Seat, Every Day" was the title of Sanchez' grant application to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation.

--Joan Wallace, Bellevue business woman who for more than a decade has helped focus attention on the needs of the families of Granger and created the district's relationship with Heritage.

Discovery Institute is presenting the award in partnership with the Seattle law firm of Patterson Buchanan, a leader in school-personnel legal issues, particularly the annual School law Conference. Bellevue developer and retailer Kemper Freeman, one of whose key focuses has been education since his years in the legislature in the 1970s, is the major sponsor.

To ensure wide visibility for the award this year, and to help guide nominations in future years, Sound Publishing and Q13 television will be media sponsors.

It was in a recent column detailing the dramatic turnaround in "chronic" absenteeism for the schools in Granger to 3.6 percent, more than four times better than the statewide average of 16 percent, that I suggested the achievement merited the attention of those seeking to bring change and educational enhancement to schools. In addition, perfect attendance to 21 percent from 3 percent the previous year.

Steve Buri, president of Discovery Institute, seized the opportunity of the May 19 dinner event and its focus on creating a school system for the current century to agree that the Granger accomplishment merited the first Innovations in Education Award and that the dinner was the appropriate venue.

Discovery Institute's American Center for Transforming Education works with state legislators, policymakers and those involved directly in education to promote systemic change to the nation's education system.

The motivation in Granger to create the attendance-incentive program was the nagging awareness for educators and parents there, as in every economically challenged area, that absenteeism is a key factor in kids failing to succeed in school as well as their becoming prime targets for gang recruitment.

Sanchez worked to create a belief among faculty and staff that full attendance was possible and put encouragement, support and incentives in place for students. She did that by putting together a year-end drawing for five iPads for students with perfect attendance and promoted the program with posters around school.

The year-end awards promotion was accompanied by signage proclaiming "every quarter you are in school every day you will receive fabulous prizes."

The motivation to recognize the achievement with the new Innovations in Education award was the realization on the part of Discovery Institute and the rest of the team of companies involved with the award that significant education change will only come if attention is focused on new ideas that are producing noteworthy change.

Wheaton said she was sure that going forward there will be an effort to measure academic results from the attendance improvement, but added last year already paid a dividend in that it"was the first in many years that the entire district met standard in all areas of the state bilingual test - the Washington English Language Proficiency Exam."

It's worth focusing on the fact that while the public education system is under challenge from forces seeking to bring about necessary changes to curriculum and structure, the Granger story is evidence that essential change can come about through new vision within the current system as well as from external forces.

The panel conversation I will be moderating following the award presentation May 19 event will feature:

--Don Nielsen, who served eight years on the Seattle School Board and has written a book called Every School that has gotten national attention:;

--Bob Hughes, a member of the state Board of Education and former Corporate Director of Education Relations for Boeing.

-- Paul T. Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Research Professor at UW-Bothell, whose focus is on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance, school choice and innovation, finance and productivity; and improving rural schools.


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Heritage University students are unlikely evangelists for the free enterprise system

They are an unlikely band of evangelists for the free enterprise system, a group of mostly Hispanic college students whose resumes almost inevitably include the phrase "first in (his or her) family to attend college."

 

Yet the students who participate in the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at Heritage University in Toppenish, and close the year competing against college teams from across the country, prove themselves not only believers in, but practitioners of, free enterprise.

 

Year after year, the students from Heritage distinguish themselves as among the top student teams at the regional and national SIFE competition, including this year in Kansas City when they finished fourth runner-up in the semi-final round of the national competition among 160 schools who participated.

"To see the transformation of these kids when they get a chance to believe in themselves is amazing," says Leonard Black, who created and has run the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at Heritage for almost a dozen years. "They go from shy, insecure and self-conscious to very outgoing and confident."

 

"These are kids from farmworker or immigrant backgrounds," notes Black. "Their dinner-table conversations at home focus on survival skills and paying bills." In fact, 97 percent of Heritage's 1,500 students qualify for some sort of federal or state financial aide, including most of the 55 percent of the students who already have children.

 

They not only believe in the message conveyed in the projects in which SIFE involves them, but they become teachers of free enterprise among entrepreneurial hopefuls in the Hispanic-dominated Yakima Valley.

 

Black spent his career as a corporate executive, finally as Duracell vice president of operations for Asia-Pacific before becoming a volunteer chair of the business program at Heritage.

 

Black recalls that it was Sr. Kathleen Ross, the Holy Names nun from Spokane who helped found Heritage College in 1981 as an independent college and served as president for 30 years until her retirement in 2010, who first suggested he take a look at SIFE. She apparently felt the program fitted in with her focus on providing higher-education opportunity to the area's multicultural population.

 

SIFE is an international non-profit organization that works with leaders in business and higher education to teach students, through outreach projects in which they apply business concepts learned in the classroom, the skills to be socially responsible business leaders.

 

An annual series of regional and national competitions provides a forum for teams to present the results of their projects, and be evaluated by business leaders serving as judges.

 

It was those annual competitions to which Black aimed the attentions of the SIFE students at Heritage, even though he recalls that the first year in the regional competition "we were told that we were the worst team they'd ever seen."

 

Undeterred by that first SIFE experience, the students met with him and said: "Mr. Black, we're coming back next year and we're going to win."

 

"So they went out and rounded up other students and came up with additional projects," Black said. "The following year they were regional first runner-up, but they were still disappointed with that showing. So the third year, they won the regionals and went on to the national competition in Kansas City."

 

Heritage officials point to the team's ability to find a flow of new members as indicating that "while SIFE is an exceptional showcase for our students-and attracts many of the best students-they are by no means unique."

 

Two years after that first national-competition showing, they became the first team from the Seattle region to ever make it into the national semi-final competition, Black said. That meant they would have to be on stage before an audience of more than 3,000, including the 130 business executives who were judges.

 

"They had never spoken into microphones, so they used soda cans to simulate microphones," Black noted. "They finished second in the nation."

 

Now it's routinely assumed that the Heritage kids will be in the forefront at the competition. In 11 years and 18 competitions, the Heritage teams have nine regional championships, seven national semi-final appearances, "final four" three times and recognition in 2011 as one of the nation's 10 top programs. And in May Black was inducted into the SIFE Hall of Fame.

 

As to their real-time involvements, Black said "We work with people in the community to help them realize their dreams" with the students touting the benefits of a free-market economy to the entrepreneur hopefuls..

 

Toppenish has a population of just under 9,000 residents, 82 percent of whom are Hispanic and 32 percent of whom live below the poverty line. It's to that population that the students bring hope, particularly since 51 percent of Heritage students are Hispanic and 85 percent are the first in their families to attend college.

 

The students recently did a survey of 4,000 households in the area and found that 180 residents want to start a business, but lack the resources to do so. So the students are putting together a training program and hope to pursue grants that will permit them to start a mini-loan fund for those entrepreneurial hopefuls.

 

Several years ago they helped Hispanic farmers form a cooperative to sell apples, including writing a business plan so the farmers could qualify for small-business loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They got a $325,000 loan, with training from the students written into the loan application, and the result is the cooperative called Washington Elite Growers.

 

Heritage alum Gary Pierce Jr., a native-American member of the Yakama Nation, turned down several Fortune 500 offers after he graduated in 2006 with a degree in business administration because he felt it was more important to remain in the community where he grew up.

 

Today he heads up marketing for Yakama Nation Land Enterprises (YNLE), a company charged with rebuilding the Yakama Nation landscape. The company purchases lost tribal lands and develops ways to make a profit from them so that more property can eventually be purchased.

 

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