Struggling West Seattle Elementary gets a fresh start
West Seattle Elementary is one of 18 schools in the state taking part in a major federal push to help the nation's lowest-performing schools improve dramatically over the next three years. In the first of a series of stories, The Seattle Times looks at the hopes and concerns as the work gets under way.
Seattle Times staff reporter
How the grants workIn a major Obama administration initiative, schools with the lowest academic track records in the nation are receiving federal grants to help them boost test scores by dramatically changing how they operate.
Eligibility: Schools judged to be in the lowest 5 percent in their states in math and reading, based largely on the past three years of test scores.
Total grants given: $3.5 billion nationwide.
In Washington state: $42.5 million to 18 schools, including three in Seattle: Cleveland High School, Hawthorne Elementary and West Seattle Elementary.
Size of grants: Amounts vary from $50,000 to $2 million a year. West Seattle Elementary will receive about $450,000 this school year, and up to $1.2 million total over three years.
Terms of the deal: School districts must agree to change their schools in one of four ways: shut them down; replace the principal and half the staff; turn the schools over to a charter school operator or another outside manager; or transform them in other key ways.
Seattle's approach: The district chose transformation for its three schools, meaning it had to replace the principal if he or she had been at the school for two years or more, boost teacher and principal effectiveness, improve instruction, add learning time and increase parent outreach.
In a corner classroom at one of Seattle's lowest-achieving schools, Ms. Coxon has dubbed her fourth-graders the Stanford Class of 2023.
Signs above the classroom door greet her 9- and 10-year-olds as the future students of her beloved alma mater and announce that "The path to college starts now." Her black cap and gown, with its red Stanford sash, hang on a wall inside, not far from where she's stapled a red-and-white Stanford pennant.
It's a little over the top, much like Chrissie Coxon herself, a confident, committed 25-year-old who is cheery but strict, and focuses on building her students' character as well as their academic skill.
The main purpose of the Stanford display is to put a name and a place to the concept of college — one of the many ways Coxon is trying to inspire her kids at West Seattle Elementary to dream big.
She is one of 12 new teachers who came to West Seattle this fall to take part in a $3.5 billion, national push to shake up schools where test scores have been in the basement for years.
Located in Seattle's High Point neighborhood, the school is one of three in the city, 18 in the state and hundreds more around the nation that won large federal grants aimed at helping them make dramatic improvement over the next three years.
The program is among a number of Obama administration education initiatives based on the premise that, with the right attitude, the right incentives and the right kind of support, many struggling schools can make far greater gains than they have in the past.
Some critics disagree with that mindset, saying it overlooks the fact that schools can't fully overcome bigger forces such as poverty in the lives of students. But the Obama administration is charging ahead.
Districts had to agree to try to turn their schools around in one of four ways, ranging from closing their doors and starting over, to taking a path called "transformation," the option that's in place at the three Seattle schools and many others across the nation. It's largely an improve-what's-there approach.
West Seattle Elementary is slated to receive about $1.2 million over the next three years. That's not enough to add hours onto the school day — one hallmark of low-income schools nationally where test scores are high. But West Seattle students did start nearly a week early this fall, and are spending 15 minutes more in class each day.
The grant also has brought a new principal (required if the existing leader has worked there more than two years), a new approach to teaching reading, new after-school activities and much more training for teachers.
There's more support for parents, too, including sessions on how to prepare for teacher conferences and help their children at home.
The stakes are high for everyone. Teachers whose job evaluations are substandard, or whose students' scores don't improve over the next two years, will be placed in another school. Principal Vicki Sacco's job is on the line, too.
Sacco and the teachers have agreed to let The Seattle Times track what happens this year as they work to reinvent and refine much of what they do.
So far, teachers — old and new — are confident they will make progress this year. At the same time, many are anxious about all the changes. There is no script to follow for any of the schools that received the grants. Many teachers have been working 12-plus-hour days and on weekends, and just nine weeks into the school year, some already are worrying about burnout.
"There is a sense of pressure, and there's a sense of urgency," says Sacco. "But everyone knew what they were getting into ... to a certain degree."
"Use every minute"
Coxon says her class here has more immigrants than at her two previous schools on the East Coast, but just as many of the kids are poor.
She's confident she can help them do better because she did that at the other two schools.
In her first two years of teaching at a public school in the Bronx, she said, her students' reading level went up by an average of two grade levels, and they mastered nearly all of New York's math standards. She had similar success the following year at a charter school in New Jersey.
Coxon became a teacher through Teach for America, a national program that recruits young college graduates into teaching. The program may be coming to the Seattle area soon.
Her teaching approach and philosophy reflect what she learned in both those places, plus what she's picked up from observing accomplished teachers.
One theme: maintaining a brisk, engaging pace.
"If you can hear my voice, clap once," she says one recent morning as students settle into their desks after an activity.
"If you can hear my voice, clap twice."
She sets a timer for three minutes, then picks up a soft red ball, which she tosses to students who raise their hands to share what they're writing about in their essays. The ball changes the mood a bit, she says. Students who usually hang back are drawn in.
"They want to catch the ball," she says.
Transitions between activities are swift, too. She gives students just 10 seconds to get from their seats to the classroom rug or vice versa. As they move, she counts out loud. "10. 9. 8. 7 ... "
Another theme: engaging their hearts as well as their heads.
She strives to get her students — and their families — invested in working hard at school. She talks with them about their hopes and dreams, and then works backward. What do they have to do in college to reach those goals? In high school? Today?
Earlier this year, Coxon handed out a sheet that showed her students how West Seattle Elementary's test scores compare with district and state averages. Many were surprised the scores were so low. To them, school was good if they liked their teacher. They hadn't realized they were so far behind.
"It makes me feel like slavery all over again," wrote one student, a girl named Rahwa.
"It makes me so mad, it makes me want to pull out my hair," wrote her classmate, Achara. "But instead, I'll work hard and go to college."
Coxon doesn't have as much time with her students as she did at her last school, a charter school where the day ran from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
While she'd love that much time now, she's determined to succeed anyway.
"It just adds urgency to use every minute that I have," she said.
Finding the right teachers
All of the West Seattle Elementary staff members from last year could have stayed if they were willing to sign an agreement that they would work longer hours and face extra scrutiny — including being judged in part by their students' test scores.
But they also could choose to transfer to other schools — no harm, no foul. About half left.
The half who remained are relatively new to the school themselves. Only a handful had taught at West Seattle for more than a year.
The result was a chance for the struggling school to look at itself with fresh eyes.
The newly hired teachers mostly came from other states or districts, chosen in part because they've been successful in challenging schools before, said Erin Tillman, who was an administrator at West Seattle last year but opted to return to the classroom this fall.
Tillman said they also looked for people who were flexible enough to work closely with instructional coaches, consultants and their peers — expectations that come with the grant.
The teachers and other staff members who opted to stay are strong, too, Tillman said.
"I've never worked with this caliber of people overall."
The only first-year teacher among the new hires, Tara Slinden, says she feels like a freshman who somehow ended up on the varsity team.
She's working hard to keep up, she says, even placing a pad of Post-its by her bedside to jot down good ideas that come to her in the middle of the night. Not long ago, she wrote a whole lesson plan that way — on 14 little yellow squares.
Sacco, the principal, was nearly the last staff member hired. Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson said it took time to find someone who had led a similar school through big changes. Sacco drove here from Florida in August, her Toyota Camry packed tight.
Because she arrived so late, the whirlwind that always accompanies a new school year was even busier.
It will be so much easier next year, is a frequent refrain among teachers and staff.
Already, the school feels different, teachers say. Hallways and the playground are much calmer than last year. And in the classroom, less time is spent on behavior, more on instruction.
That was one of the first tasks Sacco tackled. With help from staff, she thought through every procedure, from how students enter the building, to how many classes are in the cafeteria at any one time during lunch. The goal was to set consistent expectations to minimize problems.
Signs all through the hallways say "Straight. Right. Quiet. Polite." Shorthand for: Walk quietly and politely in a straight line, on the right-hand side of the wall.
With that in place, Sacco is now deep into working on instruction.
For West Seattle to reach its goals, "you need top-quality instruction in the classroom," she said. "That's the bottom line."
They have a lot of work to do. Sacco says she's impressed with the skill teachers have and how fast they're improving, but that many students have a long way to go.
In a recent meeting, the staff wrote each student's name and reading and math level on Post-it notes, then arranged the notes by level on the wall. The bulk of students in each grade were at least one year behind where they should be.
The fifth-graders in particular were spread very wide — all the way from kindergarten level up.
Climbing the mountain
Almost kitty-corner from her Stanford cap and gown, Coxon has taped up a big, butcher-paper tree beside a steep, brown mountain. The mountain represents the path to college. The tree is to track the students' climbs in reading.
Each time someone moves up a level, they celebrate.
One recent afternoon, those students were Anthony and Abdifatah.
Coxon leads the class through a finger drum roll as she announces their names. She asks Anthony which class cheer he'd like. Anthony picks the "paparazzi." Students pretend to snap a few pictures of him, then give him a thumbs up and a "lookin' good!"
Coxon asks what advice he has to help his classmates improve, too. "If I am bored, I just get a book and I read," he says.
Coxon emphasizes how much progress he's made, that they're all making.
Then it's time to head to the rug for a vocabulary lesson.
"10, 9." Coxon counts. " 8, 7 ... 6 ... 5, 4 ... "
Got to keep moving. There is no time to waste.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
Career Center Blog
Your Opinion Matters
Take our survey and enter to win $100. Enter Now!