Cheney Free Press -

Staff Reporter 

Cheney works to support low-income students


August 23, 2018

A study released this summer by Johns Hopkins University found that supporting low-income students and families is key to boosting district graduation rates, and school officials say Cheney is already taking steps to do just that this upcoming school year.

A new position has been created for the district this year, one that focuses on social and emotional learning. That position will be filled by Catheleen Schlotter, who also functions as the principal of the district’s alternative high school, Three Springs.

Social and emotional learning is a new method being utilized in the education field that helps students and teachers understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others and establish and maintain positive relationships.

Many districts have begun implementing this method in their schools, finding that this tool results in immediate improvements in students’ mental health, social skills and academic achievement, particularly when students are dealing with outside barriers to graduation.

In 2016, nearly half of the country’s graduating students came from low-income families. The West Plains is no exception; according to OSPI’s Washington State Report Card, 46.7 percent of the students in the Cheney school district are low-income and take part in the free or reduced lunch program.

“Focusing on equity is a large part of the work that we’re doing to ensure that all kids get equal opportunities,” Schlotter said.

The graduation rate in Cheney for 2016 was 82.3 percent, slightly under the national average of 84 percent, and the district is making improving that graduation rate a priority, Superintendent Rob Roettger said.

“We set a goal on our district improvement plan to hit 95 percent on our graduation rates, and to be quite honest with you I think that number needs to be 100 percent. We don’t get into this business to graduate eight out of 10,” Roettger said.

Last week, the district hosted a seminar for its teachers that included guest speakers and lectures on how to engage with students across the educational and economic spectrum.

Low-income students make up more than two-thirds of non-graduates across the country, and Washington had the seventh largest gap in the country between low-income and non-low-income graduation rates in 2016.

How to best support these students can be a challenge, particularly since districts serving large numbers of low-income students tend to receive less state and local funding than those serving fewer.

Cheney is already taking steps to combat those statistics, even being recognized by Governor Jay Inslee as one of the top performing districts in the state in sign-ups for the College Bound Scholarship program.

This program provides the opportunity for middle school students from low-income homes to sign up for a College Bound Scholarship. The students pledge to graduate from high school with a 2.0 GPA or higher, be a good citizen and apply to an eligible college under the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.)

Schlotter said there are several programs in place to make sure that students are given the most opportunities possible to learn and succeed.

“We have a program called Positive Interventions and Support. We make assumptions that kids know when it’s appropriate to talk in class and how to behave in the hallways, so this program ensures that we’re teaching kids what we expect, not just punishing them for not doing it,” she said.

The district is also looking at disciplinary strategies that support in-school intervention instead of suspension or expulsion, Schlotter said.

“Those steps are still occasionally necessary, but we’d really like to try to provide more intervention within the school day so kids aren’t missing out on learning,” Schlotter said.

Washington has the 10th highest percentage of low-graduation-rate high schools in the country, and roughly 60 percent of students in low-graduation-rate high schools qualify as low-income, compared to about 46 percent in all high schools.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the median income in Spokane County is $65,700. HUD determines what qualifies as low-income, and according to them, households making 80 percent or lower of the median income for the county qualify as low-income, and households making 50 percent or less are very low-income.

A family of four in this area with a household income of $52,550 would be considered low-income. Very low-income would be those making $32,850 per year or less. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Cheney from 2012 to 2016 was $31,004.

The Cheney district offers several programs to assist low-income students and partners with community programs to keep kids in school.

The district collaborates with TreeHouse, a state non-profit that provides students in foster care with school supplies and tutoring, and can help with college applications. It also participates in McKinny-Vento programs, which help students experiencing housing instability and homelessness.

“Our high school students can access certain AP exams and tests for free,” Schlotter said. “There’s also a fund to support student extracurriculars, like uniforms, shoes, ASB and band fees, etc.”

According to the Johns Hopkins study, titled “Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates,” colleges should do more to support low-income students by considering eliminating or reducing the weight of test score-based admission requirement and ensuring students have access to tutoring and other academic support.

Employers can also help ease students’ transition into the workplace by providing internships and job shadowing to give students the opportunity to have more practical, hands-on learning experiences.

Cheney is actively investing in hands-on learning with popular Future Business Leaders of America and Career and Technical Education programs at the high school level. The district will also be reintroducing wood shop at the high school.

“A brand new metal and wood shop area is part of the construction project,” Roettger said.

The good news is postsecondary attainment is increasing across the nation. Data show that between 2000 and 2014, low-income student enrollment in postsecondary institutions immediately after high school increased by eight percentage points.

It’s an improvement that Roettger is hoping will be reflected in his own district.

“Our goal is to graduate all kids so they’re prepared to leave our system with options,” Roettger said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

Shannen Talbot can be reached at


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