Strong performances on the SAT college entrance exam tend to be dominated these days by charter school students. But a small public school at the south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene is among the SAT standouts in Idaho this year.
Nestled in the rolling hills south of Harrison, Kootenai High School is proving it can hold its own among the strongest academic environments in the Gem State, even as it confronts steep enrollment declines and limited resources.
Of the Idaho schools that had 10 or more juniors tackle the SAT in mid-April, Kootenai had the largest year-over-year improvement. The average score of 1,526 was up 191 points over 2013.
“That just blew me out of the water,” Principal Tim Schultz said.
The SAT has three components – reading, math and writing – with a combined possible score of 2,400. Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, a perennial high achiever, ranks first in the state with an average score of 1,818. But Kootenai, whose score was 163 points above the state average, was 10th highest in Idaho and fourth highest among non-charter schools.
“I like to see general public schools on that list with the charter schools,” Schultz said. “We can turn out a heck of a product. Our kids are good.”
The results are especially remarkable in that the Kootenai School District has seen plunging enrollment. It had around 380 students in grades K-12 in the early 1990s. Today, just 168 students attend school on the campus, which sits on Coeur d’Alene Reservation land surrounded by farms and forest. The district has lost six full-time teaching positions in the past five years, and those who remain juggle more responsibilities.
“They’ve done a great job in the face of some real obstacles in helping students perform at a very high level,” Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna said.
“It’s a small school, it has unique demographics. How can we learn from that school and duplicate that great success elsewhere?” Luna said. “Any school, regardless of its size, that would show a 191-point increase in one year deserves praise and recognition.”
‘We’re still here’
The Great Recession forced some families to move away, and many graduates leave to pursue careers in cities, said school counselor Kevin Kincheloe, who also teaches wood shop and welding and is the track and field coach.
“They’ve done well, but they moved to where the jobs are,” Kincheloe said.
Higher gas prices also have been a hardship in this sparsely populated end of Kootenai County. In the ’90s, when gas was below $2 a gallon, people could afford to commute, he said. “And now pushing $4, that’s a big chunk out of your budget,” Kincheloe said.
Apart from agriculture and timber jobs, there’s little other industry here. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes pumps some dollars into the economy, but the tourists only pedal through for part of the year.
“We’ve seen a migration from rural Idaho to urban and suburban far more driven by the economy than anything else,” Luna said. “If the jobs aren’t there then the families are going to leave.”
What has helped sustain the Kootenai district is strong community support. Voters in 2012 approved a $1.2 million-a-year supplemental levy to make up for sharp cuts in state education funding. In 2011, when the schools needed a new sewage treatment lagoon, voters overwhelmingly approved the $2 million price tag.
“Because of our patron support, we’re still here, our doors are open,” said Schultz, who also teaches biology and chemistry. “We’re giving these kids a quality education, and they achieve.”
Senior class portraits dating back nine decades line the walls of the school cafeteria. Back in 1926, just five students posed for the photographer. Over the decades, the same family names pop up again and again.
“We have a core nucleus of families that have been here generation after generation,” Kincheloe said.
Now the classes are getting smaller again. This year there are 22 freshmen. The seniors number just 14 – the ones who scored so well on the SATs as juniors. Eight of them started here as kindergartners.
“I think we’re down right at 20 kids from last year, districtwide,” Schultz said. “When you’re talking 160, 20 is major.”
Nowhere to hide
Built 10 years ago, the high school sits next to the junior high, elementary school and district office. A single corridor runs down the center of the building, separating classrooms from the gymnasium. Spirit banners hang in the hallways: “Warrior pride,” proclaims one. “It takes ALL of us,” reminds another.
Andrew Whipple’s classroom is adorned with a mix of educational images – a Bill of Rights poster, the periodic table of elements, Idaho’s major softwood trees – and memorabilia such as portraits of John Wayne and Elvis Presley.
During a recent Wednesday morning U.S. government class a dozen seniors recited the pledge of allegiance, then sat to prepare for a test. Nine girls and three boys split into two teams for a spirited, trivia-style game.
“Government is the ‘blank’ through which a society makes and enforces its public policies,” Whipple asked.
After a brief consultation with her teammates, a student called out, “Institution?”
“Ding, ding, ding! Correct,” their teacher responded.
Everyone participates at Kootenai High. There’s no place for wallflowers here.
“We know our kids. They can get away with nothing,” Kincheloe said.
The seniors spend almost all their time together. Most participate in sports.
“I think we’ve all had our moments where we could just strangle each other, but I think we’ve actually become closer because of it,” said Madison Grubham, 18.
It’s a mix of support and competition that makes everyone better, students said.
“We kind of hold each other to certain standards, try and help others along if they’re not doing so well,” said Katey Mae McInturff, 17, a two-time 1A state pole vault champion who is applying to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
They also benefit from a low student-teacher ratio, with some classes having half or one-third the students you’d find in a Coeur d’Alene school.
“You get more one-on-one with the teachers,” McInturff said. “They’re a little more available to help out with any problems you have.”
Equal access to learning
Luna called Kootenai High a shining star in a statewide initiative to boost student achievement, especially in rural areas that have lacked access to technology and other resources available in more populated places.
“We began a very deliberate process years ago of breaking down those barriers and making sure that no matter where a child attended school, no matter how small or isolated or remote their school was, that they had access to the same high standards, the same high instruction and information at their fingertips,” Luna said.
Online classes and the chance for students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously have made a huge difference in smaller districts, Luna said. The biggest growth in dual-credit classes in Idaho has been in rural districts, he said, “because students finally have access and are taking advantage of it.”
Kootenai students connect to courses through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, the state-sponsored online school. Three members of the senior class are in a dual enrollment track through North Idaho College, so they never need to step foot on the Kootenai campus this year. Most of the seniors are eyeing four-year colleges after graduation.
Last year a senior girl at Kootenai High won a National Merit Scholarship Corporation award, having scored a perfect 800 on the SAT reading section and 760 on math.
“So we’ve had over the years a lot of kids test really high,” Kincheloe said.
But as a class, this year’s seniors probably showed the biggest year-over-year leap, he said.
Kincheloe said he looks forward to seeing how this year’s juniors will compare. “They’re about the same.”
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