'Oh God, There’s No More High School After This’: Film Tracks Highline Students For 4 Years

Sep 18, 2017

Graduation rates are something each school district tracks closely, but there are human stories underlying those numbers. Telling those stories is what Highline Public Schools set out to do in a new documentary called "Eleven Paths."

In 2013, the Highline school district had a graduation rate of 62 percent. District leaders decided to reach for an ambitious goal – achieving a 95 percent graduation rate in four years.

That would mean 19 out of 20 of the entering ninth graders would get a diploma by spring of 2017.

The district’s chief communications officer, Catherine Carbone Rogers, wanted to document what that effort meant for individual students working toward getting a diploma and the challenges they faced along the way.   

“I had this idea that if we could follow a group of students for four years we would tell a story that would reflect the reality of our kids in our community,” she said.

So they picked a group of 11 students to interview every year starting in ninth grade. At the beginning of high school, each student was interviewed about his or her ambitions, which ranged from becoming an architect to being a special agent in the FBI to opening a bakery.

Highline partnered with Seattle-based filmmaker Rick Stevenson, the creator of the School of Life Project, in which he does annual interviews with kids with a goal of helping them learn about themselves.

The students profiled in this film for Highline reveal deeply personal struggles. One young woman was pregnant when Stevenson first met her and had a baby during high school. Another had lost both her parents by the time she was nine years old.

Stevenson said it was cathartic for them to talk.

“I find most kids really want to connect and really want to discuss their lives in a deep and thoughtful and reflective way,” he said.

“These kids in Highline were going through every imaginable pain you could go through growing up,” he said. “And giving them a chance to talk about it, express it and really heal themselves through their own story and realize that they could be authors of their own story. They didn’t need to be victims. That has huge value.”

The film captures the raw emotion of what it means for the students to get their diplomas and celebrates their successes.

Karla, the young woman who gave birth to her daughter during high school, graduated. Not only that, she’s going to study at a community college in California and then hopes to earn her PhD.

Highline managed to boost its graduation rate to about 77 percent this year but has not yet reached its original goal. Out of the eleven students in the film, nine graduated on time. One said she plans to get her GED and the other has come back to school after dropping out for a while.

The film will be screened Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Highline Performing Arts Center in Burien. Highline Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield will moderate a panel discussion with Stevenson and students featured in the film.