High poverty but high hopes: West Seattle Elementary School making progress
As West Seattle Elementary in Seattle labors through its first year of an intense federal program aimed at boosting its persistently low test scores, there are both challenges and signs that the school is on the right track to become a rarity in education: a high-achieving, high-poverty school.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Inside her second-floor office at West Seattle Elementary, counselor Laura Bermes was visibly upset.
Not long after the school year started, Bermes became concerned about how many days students were missing, and started doing everything she could to boost the school's attendance rate.
She's called many of the families of students who missed four days or more without a valid excuse, and negotiated attendance contracts with them. She's held truancy workshops for groups of parents and picked students up from home herself. She even dropped off food at the home of one family, thinking the kids there weren't coming to class because they were hungry.
With many families, her efforts worked. One mom was so intent on fulfilling her attendance contract that she called the police when her son refused to go to school.
Still, when Bermes, who is in her first year as a school counselor, looked at the latest numbers, her hopes of a fast truancy turnaround were dashed. Attendance hasn't improved, and neither has the high rate of unexcused absences, five times greater than the district average.
Principal Vicki Sacco told Bermes not to worry. The kind of overhaul the West Seattle school undertook this year takes time. And a lot has changed for the better, too, as West Seattle labors through its first year as part of a large, federally funded effort to turn around some of the nation's lowest-performing schools.
Seven months into the school year, the two-story brick school in West Seattle's High Point neighborhood is a much calmer place, with fewer fights and stricter rules. Test scores are up, especially in math, where the school's overall improvement from last spring to this winter was greater than at any other elementary in the city.
The results impressed the district's central office so much that interim Superintendent Susan Enfield showed up recently with two sheet cakes to celebrate.
Still, it's clear that West Seattle is just getting started in its struggle to attain what is still a rare distinction: becoming a high-achieving, high-poverty school.
Despite the test-score improvements, many students have a long way to go before their academic skills are where they should be. Sacco is always trying to find the best balance for keeping up the pace of improvement she'd like to see without pushing teachers too hard. The teaching is strong, Sacco says, but there's room for improvement — even as the extra money that the federal grant provides is undercut by district budget cuts.
And nothing the school does will help if students miss class too often.
"If the kids aren't here, it doesn't matter what you do, they're not learning," Sacco said. "They need to be here."
Only 40 to 45 of the school's 398 students make up the bulk of the absences, Bermes says, but that's still too many.
One kindergartner, she said, has missed 68 days — more than one-third of the school year.
A national effort
Nationwide, more than 100 schools were awarded similar federal turnaround grants last year, including two other schools in Seattle and 15 elsewhere in the state. Additional schools will get funds this year.
Many have a lot in common with West Seattle Elementary, including a large percentage of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches and are learning English. Many at West Seattle are from families that have immigrated from East Africa and Latin American countries.
To win one of the grants — which add $350,000 to $400,000 to West Seattle Elementary's budget each year for three years — school districts must agree to significant changes. At West Seattle, that's meant a new principal, many new teachers, 15 extra minutes of school each day, more after-school activities — and much more accountability, for students and parents as well as staff.
The Seattle Times has been following West Seattle's efforts this school year to see what they yield.
Improving the school's climate has been the biggest success so far.
That was Sacco's first major effort as the school's new leader, and many parents and students say West Seattle feels like a different place.
"We're able to learn more. The rules are working," said fifth-grader Arlondra Rivera, whose test scores have shot up this year from average to above average.
Last year "you could get away with anything," said another fifth-grader. "Even if you beat someone up, you could go on field trips."
This year, he missed one excursion for forgetting his permission slip. And because he got into some trouble and hadn't finished all his homework, he almost missed another.
There isn't enough money in the federal grant to significantly extend the school day, which many believe has been one key to major gains in achievement at other high-poverty schools. So Sacco and her staff look for ways to make sure every minute counts.
One big focus: making clear to students what's expected and rewarding them for achieving it. Each teacher, for example, has a stack of "Husky Bucks" to give students for working hard, for kindness, for doing the right thing. The more Bucks students earn, the better chance they have of receiving a prize in a Husky Buck drawing held every few months. There also are awards for classes that behave best in the cafeteria, and those with the highest attendance rates.
Teachers such as Clarissa Resendez, a veteran who is considered one of the school's best, have their own incentive programs, too.
Goals and awareness
Each month, Resendez, who came to West Seattle this year from nearby Highland Park Elementary, sends her fifth-graders home with a "goal" sheet outlining behavior and academic expectations that both the student and parents sign. She tells students if they're below grade level — which are often tough conversations, she says, but effective in giving some students the push they need to try harder. And four or five times a day, she has the kids rate their own behavior.
It doesn't take long. She just runs through the class list, asking each student how many points they think they deserve.
There is no punishment for losing points — except not getting invited to a short, extra recess or getting a small treat at the end of each month. Mostly, Resendez says, the point system helps students reflect on how they're doing — especially those who don't have a parent or other adult at home keeping close tabs on them. And it rewards the many students who quietly and regularly complete all their work.
If students try to give themselves more points than they deserve, they can be challenged, as Resendez did recently when one boy tried to slide by with a 49 out of 50.
"I really think it should be 45 or 44," Resendez said.
"Forty-six," the student said.
"Forty-five," Resendez insisted.
The rest of the class laughed.
Hope, talent and worry
Resendez and many other teachers started the year confident that the school's test scores would go up. They feel part of a talented team — half made up of teachers who chose to stay at the school under the new conditions of the grant, and half from places as far away as New York City who wanted to be part of the challenge.
But they also feel a lot of pressure, which is rising as end-of-year tests get under way — the last of the school year's Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exams, which are mandated by the district, plus state tests in reading, math, writing and science.
Resendez and other teachers worry whether students are ready — especially for the state test's multistep questions, which trip up a lot of them. Starting next year, test scores will become part of how the teachers are evaluated.
Resendez recently spent a full day on practice questions, showing students how many of them gave good answers on some questions yet wouldn't have earned any points because they didn't follow the instructions exactly.
But she and other teachers also are heartened by much of what they see.
Resendez, for example, says it's very rewarding to know how much improvement many of her students made this school year, even if about a third still won't reach a fifth-grade proficiency level by year's end. Ten of them already have gone up two grade levels in reading.
The other fifth-grade teacher, Tara Sliden, is happy to see that one of her students, who was identified as gifted a few years ago, now has test scores that reflect that.
And then there's the wavy-haired boy that Sliden meets with once a week at lunch, in an attempt to keep his up-and-down behavior on the "up" side.
At one recent meeting, she asked him a series of questions aimed at showing him he has the traits of a high achiever.
Does he think he has control over his life? Does he think others are supposed to make him happy?
He answered yes to the first, no to the second.
Does he learn from his mistakes?
"Umm," he said. "Last year I didn't."
"But this year?"
She asked whether he believes he's a high achiever, and he says he thinks everyone can be.
"Just don't think negative," he said. "Negative gets you nowhere. "Positive gets you better places."
And Bermes, the counselor disappointed in attendance rates, proudly posted a chart about discipline on her door, in the halls and at the office. It shows that only half as many kids are being sent to the office for misbehaving this year — down to an average of not even one per day.
"Just like anybody here, I want to see the change," she said. "I want to know we're making a difference."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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