10/11/2018 9:45 AM
What if you could design a school where all the students and all the teachers chose to be there; where the graduation rate flirts with the 100% level; where the building was constructed with an interest-free federal loan; where some students get professional, living-wage jobs before they graduate; where the demographics reflect the local community; where tuition is free; and where the lights are powered by the sun? This is not a dream, this is a public school.
Welcome to Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School of the Evergreen School District in the city of Vancouver, Washington, also referred to as “HeLa High School.” Opened in 2013 in a building designed to accommodate 500 students, HeLa now serves 625 in grades 9-12 due to strong interest from the community.
HeLa is named after the woman who unknowingly contributed to an immortal line of cells named “HeLa.” These cells have aided in thousands of scientific breakthroughs including the development of the polio vaccine. Scientific and medical advances with HeLa cells set the stage for the cutting-edge education provided in this public school.
Entering as freshmen, students have a full high school experience that includes all the core subjects as well as fine arts and world language electives. However, the primary focus is on integrating a scientific and mathematical emphasis in each area. That integrative approach is reflected in how teachers organize their professional learning communities; they organize based on ideas rather than strictly by department.
With small learning environments, students thrive as they tackle increasingly complex course offerings—some the first of their kind in the high school arena such as Epidemiology and Pharmacology—as well as Advanced Placement courses in all content areas.
With facilities to rival institutions of higher education and equipment to match professional research laboratories, HeLa offers programs of study in five areas: Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering, PublicHealth, Pharmacology, and Nursing and Patient Services, which includes an opportunity to earn a Certified Nursing Assistant certification prior to graduation.
Much of ninth grade is dedicated to orienting students to HeLa’s unique environment. “We make our ninth graders do our thing,” said Principal Julie Tumelty. “They take medical science, which means they learn all the different medical careers and they get to learn our programs of study.” Freshmen also take chemistry and read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot.
All that chemistry and required reading are rigorous, but another unique trait of HeLa is its schedule. Other schools in the district have a six-period day, but HeLa runs a block schedule with seven periods. Twice a week, there is a class period that is divided between a time for teachers to collaborate with and touch base with students, and time for students to seek out assistance from any of their other teachers, i.e., for research, help with assignments, a make-up test, etc. For the upperclassmen with internships, they have “the equity and access do it within the school day,” said Tumelty. “So we bus the kids to their internships and back within the school day, and then seven periods offers them that many more credits every year to be able to do extra classes.”
Students are admitted to HeLa via a lottery system. This is how the school’s demographics mirror those of the local community, with the exception of English Language Learners (ELL). Even so, ELL students are still eligible for the lottery, and Principal Tumelty recounted the story of a student adopted from abroad at age 13, with no English language ability and facing other challenges, but who nonetheless graduated from HeLa by studying for an extra year.
The leadership of HeLa performs plenty of outreach to inform students and families about HeLa. With current students in tow, they visit every one of Evergreen School District’s middle schools. Speaking to entire assemblies, they reach all of Evergreen’s 8th graders. They also coordinate visits from district schools with large percentages of low-income families so the children can see the possibilities. They also visit meetings of parents who have become leaders within their local school community and who are not native English speakers.
In addition to outreach, HeLa performs a lot of “in-reach” by accepting several visits a year from officials of other Washington school districts and the greater Portland, Oregon area. Other guests have included the governor and periodic visits from businesses or corporations referred by the local Education Development Council, which has been a significant partner to the district as it worked to realize its vision of HeLa. “These are companies that are looking at whether or not to locate here,” said Superintendent Steach. “They’re evaluating four or five sites, so this is like the crown jewel of the tour to bring them through and show them and say, ‘This is what your kids, your employees’ children, could attend.’”
HeLa is highly sought by local families and prized by local leaders and the business community, but what impact has it had on the rest of the district? “I think it’s making a big impact,” said Principal Tumelty. “We invited our colleagues to visit us and see how we operate and support our teachers, and many did. They were surprised and, I think, energized. Some are trying to emulate what we do.”
As the principal explained, the school is of a size that they can act nimbly, and try new things without worrying about having a negative impact on the district. Also, they have a staff that has already subscribed to a culture of innovation, which is reflected in the principal's word choice. “Our instructional coach has done a lot of work to support teachers in that leap of whatever it is they’re trying to do.” Apparently, teachers at HeLa “leap” as opposed to simply developing. “It’s kind of like an incubator for innovation where we can do things and then bring in people from around the district to take a look at it,” said Steach.
HeLa’s success was not realized overnight. Its opening was preceded by ten years of planning, a $1 million capital budget appropriation by the state Legislature, two and a half superintendents, site visits to other states and some good old-fashioned grit. “You have to be ready right from the beginning to engage in partnerships,” said school director Victoria Bradford. “You’ve got to be in it for the long haul. We had to, as a board, stay solid and say ‘No, we’ve been looking into this. This is what our community needs. This is going to be awesome for kids. We’re doing it.’” And so they did!
This story appeared in the fall edition of WSSDA Direct, our quarterly newsletter.