Seattle Promise

Equity and the Seattle Promise: How the 13th year (now 14th year) came to be


The South Seattle College Foundation decided ten years ago to fund a free 13th year – 1st year of college – for every student in need.  Over many years of trial and error, and with great leadership, they made the program seemingly an instant success.  When Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, was elected she announced on her first day in office that she would expand this program city wide and include a 14th year.  How did this ten years of hard work turn into instant success?  Here is a part of that story.

The Beginning: 

It was an overcast day in Seattle when I met with Rosie Rimando. Rosie has been at the center of this program’s success since the beginning.

I thanked her for her work and let her know how the 13th year was making a huge difference in the lives of Seattle students.

The South Seattle College Foundation board started the program in 2007.  As they read scholarship applications they were touched by the applications and the letters of recommendation.  The foundation  wanted to find a way to help more students graduate.  At the same time, they heard a speaker from the State Board talking about the “tipping point.” They wanted to know what they could do to make college a viable option for all.  This was a big deal at the time, much earlier than most of the “Promise” scholarships that have started since then.

Small Start: 

They looked first at nearby high schools but decided they were too big.  Cleveland High School was further away, but still in their region and had a much smaller enrollment.  Rosie was asked to do the outreach at Cleveland.  Rosie began recruiting and educating.  She got kids signed up.  There were no requirements; if you graduated you were eligible.  Many of the students showed as “basic” or below on the Compass exam – far below college material.

New Hopes, New Dreams

Rosie says, she found from the students that SSC wasn’t plan B, it wasn’t even plan Z.  These students had never planned to go to college.  And the exam showed that they weren’t by any means ready to go to college.

Closing Gaps

But they went to work.  The foundation board repositioned funds to cover tuition.  They looked for below basic catch up programs.  Still, many of the students who signed up just as quickly dropped out.  They were learning first-hand how many barriers the students faced.

Staying the Course

But the Foundation was all in.  They had now seen students up-close and personal and wanted more than ever to help students do well.

In year two they added an August orientation for students.  Lou Tice, a motivational speaker, provided an inspirational launch.  Eventually SSC took on this self-development, self-concept motivation training themselves.  The orientation program and motivation helped, but still too many students didn’t make it through the year.

Continued Improvement

By 2011 they had created a Spring Readiness Academy to help students with placement.  By offering intensive math and language opportunities during students’ senior year, they were able to raise placement by two levels and reduce remediation.  They also started using a wider variety of student success measures so they didn’t rely so heavily on one assessment.


The trustees added funding to expand the program to a second high school, Chief Sealth International High School.  Rosie moved from the Foundation staff into Student Services and fought to have the program integrated into other ongoing programs.  An additional staff member was hired.

Fund Raising

The trustees started an endowment and set a goal of raising $8M.  And they encouraged Central and North campuses to get involved.  The program continued to grow slowly.  In 2014 they added Rainier Beach, a third high school.

Friend Raising

They reached out to Bruce Harrell on the City Council.  He talked to others on the Council.  In January 2016, the Mayor announced that the City would provide $750K/year to expand the program to a fourth high school, West Seattle, and help Central and North Campuses get started.

Growing Faster 

“Every opportunity begets another problem to solve” says Rosie.  She and her team went to work on a manual with Central and North Campuses so they would have a unified program.  They identified wrap-around services that make this far more than a scholarship program.

Going City-Wide

Then in 2017, Mayoral Candidate Durkan wanted to know more about the 13th year promise.  Two weeks later she had a white paper showing how well the program worked.  When she won in November she decided to spend her first day in office at South Seattle College signing the executive order to make the 14th Year Promise – free college for every Seattle graduate.

Two Years of College

The plan calls for a full scale 14th year program by 2019-20.  Campuses in Central and North are scaling up quickly. They recruiting 80 students each for Central and North Campuses in year one.  And they worked hard to provide the wrap around services that make this effort so effective at keeping kids in college.

Program Changes

They now serve two groups of students.  One group are the students that have never dreamed of going to college.  For them the wrap around services are critical.  The other group includes middle class families that see the opportunity keep up with the cost of housing, taxes, commuting AND tuition.  More students are opting for Seattle Colleges.

Wrap Around Services

The wrap around model provides one staff member for every two high schools.  That staff member builds relationships with each principal. They work with key teachers, counselors, assistant principals, and Community Based Organization to champion the program.  The staff members recruit the students, assess the students, get them the extra help they need, stay in touch, help with financial aid forms, and get them through the summer orientation.


In September College based staff provide on-boarding and assign case managers to provide in-depth support.  Student remain in cohorts with peers and continue to learn as they go through the year how to continue their success.  13th Year students now do better at completion than the average college admissions, college-wide.

Scaling Up

Dr. Rosie Rimando, selected as President of South Seattle College, a short time later, is “Consciously Optimistic … and nervous” about the rapid scale-up. “We are a victim of our own success.”  “We have done well growing the program gradually over time.  Now we are being asked to help with fund raisers and build out the complete program.  It will take extra efforts to keep growing a strong program.”


The program has more success stories each year, more diversity, more African American males who complete. This program has provided hope and success for nearly 1000 students who previously had little aspiration for college going.

Continued Improvements 

As I leave, we pass by a room full of the 13th Year staff working, as we speak, on other implementation improvements they can make to create even greater student success.  I pause to thank them as well for the great opportunities they are providing for our students.

* * * * *

Lessons Learned

Here are some big picture take-aways on the implementation of the Seattle Promise:

  • Start small

    SSC intentionally sought out the smallest high school they could find.

  • Do it, Try it, Fix it

    They jumped in and failed forward.  The initial success was sparse.

  • Improve

    After year one, they added a two-week orientation in August.  That helped, but only a little.  Then they moved selection to April.  Now they start in November.

  • Listen to the students

    Students are now part of a cohort and stay together from their senior year through the summer and then through their first courses at SSC.

  • Multiple Measures

    Figure how to chart success and use that data to learn from and make improvements.  They added catch up courses in high school so students could start SSC on track.

  • Champions

    Build a “guiding coalition” (Kotter) that will support the program. Rosie and the SSC Foundation provided that rock solid support.

  • Grow Gradually

    SSC grew slowly one campus at a time, working the bugs out over time.  Now they are ready to go all in – tripling the size of the program – because they have results and have learned much about successful implementation.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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