Successful Students

A student at West Seattle Elementary School, jots down quotes for her High Point Scholars writing assignment. Photo by Staci Maiers

Making Gains at West Seattle Elementary

West Seattle Elementary School in Washington is changing. While the irksome perception persists that this school in a high-poverty neighborhood is too ill-equipped, mismanaged, or even incapable of high student achievement, the school’s students, staff, and parents work quietly and effectively to change its course.

“We have a vision of becoming a blue ribbon school where teachers teach and students are in their proper grades,” says Assistant Principal Pam Conyers. “We are now on that path.”

After a year of participating in a federal program aimed at boosting student success, West Seattle’s 420 students are measurably improving faster than anyone expected.

For example, in grades 3 through 5, students’ scores on a reading test were highest in the district in 2010-11. In math, West Seattle students showed the greatest growth in the district, according to the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). Last year, the school reached Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for the first time in seven years.

“We made AYP 100 percent in each student subgroup,” says Conyers, referring to Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and Pacific Islander groups. “That, for me, is closing the achievement gap.”

According to an accountability index used by the Washington State Board of Education, in the last two years the school moved from Level 1 (underperforming) to Level 3 (maintaining growth). The index provides schools with a snapshot of their achievement taking into account improvement from the previous year and a school’s relative performance compared to demographically similar schools. The highest level (7) applies to schools or districts where at least 90 percent of students meet prescribed academic standards.

To help support and promote West Seattle, the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign (PSC) selected the school as one of its intensive support sites. Nationally, the PSC program focuses on making substantial, educator-led improvements in high-needs schools. Many of the teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) at the school are members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), which has 4,900 members.

“There are no short cuts to improving student achievement,” says Jonathan Knapp, SEA vice president. “It takes time, but SEA is proud to work out innovative ways to address the achievement gap in our district.”

Since last school year, West Seattle has narrowed the achievement gap due in part to receiving a School Improvement Grant (SIG). West Seattle and two other local schools are sharing the $3 million grant, which expires in 2013. By accepting the federal grant – adding an estimated $350,000 to $400,00 to school coffers – West Seattle agreed to install a new principal, new teachers, 15 extra minutes of school each day, and  more after-school activities. So far, the changes have yielded positive results.

“Our school climate has improved tremendously, meaning that children feel welcomed, engaged and safe,” says Laura Bermes, a counselor who joined the staff in 2010 as part of the transformation process. “Parents tell me they feel confident that their children are receiving an adequate education and that they, too, feel welcomed.”

Bermes says that office discipline referrals decreased dramatically this year, which means students “spend less time in trouble and more time engaged in learning.” She attributes this achievement to “amazing staff support, incredible parent engagement, and great teaching.”

Knapp says the federal grant also helped to create parent engagement and community-based education programs that mitigate the impact of poverty on student’s lives.

“The SIG process has shown us that concerted action on the achievement gap with targeted supplemental support for educators can produce real improvements in student learning,” he says. “Adding a new administrator, for example, has freed up the principal from mundane administrative duties to be more present in the classroom as an instructional leader.”

While some changes have come quickly, others have come maddeningly slow. Unexcused absences and tardiness are a problem. To address these and similar issues, school staff take it “one step further than parents or students expect,” says Bermes.

“(We) sit on the kid until mom shows up to pick him up,” she says. “(We) drive a student home if dad won’t pick up his child because of a discipline issue.”

One innovation at West Seattle geared to improving student achievement has been the installation inside the school of a chapter of the YMCA. As director of education and leadership at the school’s YMCA Community Learning Center, Nathan Sander runs an after-school program which supports academics by providing tutoring, small group instruction, and homework assistance.

“We also offer enrichment classes in everything from art and music to science and cooking,” says Sander.

The YMCA program runs 150 days a year and serves between 70 and 80 students. The youth organization also operates a six-week academic-based summer program called High Point Scholars. It focuses on closing the achievement gap and combating summer learning loss.

“Public school educators in Seattle have long said ‘it is about the relationships,’” says Knapp. “Parental engagement is key, as are community partnerships that actually meet the needs of students.”

Meeting the needs of students can include meeting the needs of their parents as well. For example, parents of Somali students at the school were unaccustomed to the U.S. public school system.

“They would drop off their kids a few blocks from the school,” Conyers says.

This prompted staff to organize a school open house and barbecue night. More than 400 people participated, including Somali parents.

“They (Somalis) come in all the time now,” Conyers says. “They bring us tea.”

Conyers credits the school’s resilient Bilingual Orientation Center and Family Support Worker Team with overcoming a cavalcade of language, cultural and economic elements to reach Somali and other immigrant parents.

Last November, parental involvement was most impressive during Teacher Appreciation Week. On that Monday, Somali parents brought in a variety of African dishes for school staff. Tuesday was Hispanic Night, and Wednesday was reserved for Asian parents.

“We are definitely a community school,” she says. “We are like a beautiful mosaic with a vast array of students who speak (collectively) 13 languages. Our classrooms are like the United Nations with people from across the world.”

Located in the high-poverty area of High Point, West Seattle used to be named High Point Elementary School. Years after re-naming the school, the sign on the main building had not been updated. When Conyers spoke to a parent group last year, because of the old sign some didn’t know the school had changed its name.

“When I said I was from West Seattle, they thought I was at the wrong meeting,” Conyers says. “There are still a lot of challenges here, but also a lot, a lot of rewards.”

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