An aerial view of a waterway in Spokane, WA.
Aerial View of Spokane Waterway

2014 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

A Focus on Education

In 2006, the Spokane Public Schools’ graduation rate was less than 60 percent. By 2013, it had jumped to nearly 80 percent.

The story behind that incredible turnaround is truly remarkable and one with potentially profound health impacts.

“In Spokane County, we’re using educational attainment as a lens for improving health,” said Alisa May, executive director of Priority Spokane. “We’re beginning to see real signs of success in our work.”

Despite being home to a number of quality colleges and universities and a good employment base in the biomedical and technical fields, 18 percent of children in Spokane County live below the federal poverty level. The community recognized it was vital for Spokane to give its residents the opportunity to take advantage of these potential job opportunities in their own backyard.

In 2009, Priority Spokane—an organization led by representatives from government, academia, business and other nonprofits focusing on the vitality of the county—sought the input of residents on the community’s most pressing issues. By an overwhelming majority, citizens voted for education attainment as the community’s top priority. Since then, education has been the community’s focus because it matters to the residents and because leaders see it as the key to breaking the intergenerational cycles of poverty and poor health.

“One of the seminal moments that inspired our journey was a report from our local health department clearly linking lack of education to poor health, lower income and poverty,” said County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn. “It motivated our organization, along with many others, to work on improving the health of our community by focusing on education.”

Education as a Catalyst for Better Health

By understanding the strong connection between education and health, Spokane County has taken on graduation rates and school attendance as health issues.

Boosting Graduation Rates for Better Health

One-third of Spokane Public School students were dropping out in 2006. Many students who started college never got a technical certificate or a two-year or four-year degree.

To empower young people and expand educational opportunities to improve health, Spokane County is transforming its approach to student success. County leaders—including school officials, local universities, the business community and other partners—responded with a series of innovative steps, including full-day kindergarten; skill-building training sessions for young students; a real-time early-warning system to monitor student attendance and grades; and targeted dropout prevention programs designed to be supportive rather than focusing on punishment.

The plan is working—and the results will continue to pay dividends.

“There are so many linkages between health and education,” says Lyndia Wilson, Division Director at Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD). “Individuals who have more education are more likely to make better decisions about tobacco and alcohol, sexual activity and other risky behaviors. At the same time, better education makes you eligible for better-paying jobs that have health insurance, wellness programs, and other benefits.”

Other health efforts in Spokane County build on education achievements by empowering youth and fostering youth advocacy to enact healthy changes in the community. A Neighborhoods Matter initiative trains youth advocates who successfully lobbied the Spokane City Council for the bulldozing of a drug house, zoning limits on junk food advertising, and preserving local public library hours. As a result of complementary efforts, a one-tenth cent sales tax now supports community-based mental health and criminal justice services.

By complementing the laser focus on improving graduation rates with these other initiatives to address the root causes of poor health, community partners are making a positive impact on the ability of every child to succeed.

Culture of Health Prize 2015 - Everett. COH website.
,Culture of Health Prize 2015 - Everett. COH website.

The Culture of Health Prize

The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.

Fostering Resilience for Better Health, Success

Evidence shows that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—such as abuse or neglect—actually affect children’s brain development and can have serious negative consequences throughout their entire lives, including being more prone to risky health behaviors, disease and disability, and even an earlier death.

“Teachers and childcare workers are being trained to recognize the warning signs in children who have experienced trauma in their homes,” says Wilson. “This training helps them understand the reasons why a student might be acting out or feeling withdrawn, and can help them build trust with children dealing with difficult circumstances.” School personnel are becoming increasingly equipped to provide encouragement and mentoring to these children or to refer them for additional help, working hand in hand with parents and caregivers to foster resilience and a healthier road to success.

Children playing at the St. Anne’s Children’s Center, where teachers are trained to spot adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). At the St. Anne’s Children’s Center, teachers and administrators are trained to spot adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Students walking in a school hallway, where from 2006 to 2013 the Spokane Public Schools’ graduation climbed from 60 percent to nearly 80 percent. From 2006 to 2013, the Spokane Public Schools’ graduation climbed from 60 percent to nearly 80 percent.

Preventing Dropouts

Launched during the 2012-2013 school year, the Early Warning System (EWS) is an interactive dashboard that allows Spokane Public Schools staff to monitor student attendance and grades in real time. The EWS platform was developed after analysis of local data showed that there are clear predictors—such as higher level of truancy—among students as early as 3rd grade that increase the likelihood of dropping out of school later on. The goal of EWS is to identify students at risk of dropping out and then provide tailored interventions. The initiative exemplifies how Spokane is harnessing the power of data to inform decision-making and target interventions that produce results.

Community Attendance Support Teams (CASTs), which are comprised of educators, business leaders, and nonprofit representatives, work with middle school students who have had four unexcused absences during a school year. Before a truancy petition is filed, a CAST meeting is set up to provide support and solutions for the student and his or her family. Students are asked to explain their absences, while CAST members help to identify and resolve issues such as bullying or a lack of transportation that are impeding their success at school. Having community partners serve on CAST teams helps them connect parents and teens to support services that could help address whatever’s make it hard for the child to attend school. For example, if the child is having trouble simply getting to school, a partner at the table might be able to provide transportation options such as bus passes. In other cases they might provide a mentor or a tutor or an afterschool program that engages them at their level of interest.

A contract is then signed by all participants, committing the students to a better path forward. Says May: “We are all in this together to get students to school, to help them succeed, and to fulfill their dreams.”

Remote Cars Spokane Valley Tech is meeting the educational needs of high school students and workforce development needs of Spokane businesses. The hope is that this will result in higher-paying jobs and improved health outcomes for county residents, while also boosting the local economy.

Partnering with Business to Build the Pipeline to Better Jobs

To help bridge students from a strong education to an even stronger economic future, Spokane County has worked in close collaboration with businesses and employers to assess the skills needed for high-demand, high-paying jobs — and to provide the resources to educate and train community members with those very skills.

Spokane Valley Tech is the collaborative effort of four county schools that have come together with backing from a local energy company to provide career development opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math. The planning committee for the school met with area businesses to learn about in-demand jobs, and then surveyed students to discover their interests. As a result, the curriculum now offers Aerospace & Advanced Manufacturing, Sports Medicine, Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, Entrepreneurship, and Finance. Spokane Valley Tech is meeting the educational needs of high school students and workforce development needs of Spokane businesses. The hope is that this will result in higher-paying jobs and improved health outcomes for county residents, while also boosting the local economy.

The Academic Health Science Center on the Riverpoint Educational and Research Campus, a higher education collaborative between Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, and University of Washington, is another strong example of collaboration and leveraging resources to better meet education and job training needs. It is the result of an effort that began in 2006 between these universities, Greater Spokane Inc., the business community, regional healthcare organizations, and elected officials at all levels. The campus includes a four-year medical program, colleges of nursing and pharmacy, a first-year dental program, and allied health programs. A recent study found that the total economic impact of the campus is $350 million, with the campus providing 1,800 jobs. It is estimated that by 2030 the total economic impact will be $1.6B with the campus providing 9,000 jobs. At the same time, the campus fills a gap of much-needed rural health care in an area with severe physician shortages. The growing Riverpoint Campus will provide more opportunity for Washington students to go to medical school, increase the number of healthcare students who gain practice experience in rural settings, and create health care cost savings and increased availability of preventive care to underserved populations.

 “One of the most important things to us in Spokane is being able to attract new businesses to our community,” says Alisha Benson, Vice President of Education and Workforce at Greater Spokane Incorporated and Executive Director of Spokane STEM. “Developing and improving the workforce to compete in this economy is a priority that helps us achieve these goals.”

Looking to a Healthier, Successful Future

“Spokane County’s focus on educational success and other areas is improving the health of our children,” says Commissioner O’Quinn. “Healthy children become healthier students and adults, and everything we are doing now gives them the foundation they need to succeed after they graduate.”