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Originally published June 30, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified June 30, 2011 at 10:25 PM

Third in a series of reports on West Seattle Elementary's efforts to improve learning

West Seattle Elementary: progress made, more needed

At the end of its first, stressful year as part of a high-profile, national push to improve hundreds of low-performing schools, West Seattle Elementary can claim a lot of progress.

Seattle Times education reporter

quotes Linda...somebody didn't do their homework. The MAP scores you refer to in your article... Read more
quotes So we're finally to the point where everything hinges on tests scores? We're actually... Read more
quotes People's brains develop at differently. Children learn by having lots of practice in a... Read more

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At the end of its first, stressful year as part of a national effort to dramatically improve hundreds of low-performing schools, West Seattle Elementary can claim a lot of progress.

Not all the results are in yet from a flurry of spring tests — one set from the state, another from the district. But what is available showed significant gains.

In grades 3 through 5, the students' gains on the district reading test were higher than at any other school in the district, a recent district analysis showed. In math, they had the second-greatest growth.

And while many students still score below grade level, third-grade math scores on the district test — the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) — reached the national average, an achievement for a school where scores have been low for years.

The one recent sour note was a state review that made it painfully clear how far the school still has to go.

A review team, hired by the state to evaluate all Washington schools in the three-year program, spent nearly a full day in late April observing classes and interviewing teachers and parents. The reviewers graded the school a little better than last year, but not much.

Ratings went up in six areas, but dipped in two others: having a clear mission for learning and sharing leadership responsibilities.

And in 10 of the 19 categories, reviewers said the school still needs improvement, including in supporting students, teacher training and rigorous instruction — although they also noted that they'd seen more rigorous teaching than last year, just not enough to call it a strength.

Still, Principal Vicki Sacco was so disappointed she couldn't bring herself to read the report thoroughly for several days.

But she has reminded herself that the road to progress isn't always a straight, upward line — and that turning around a chronically underperforming school isn't a sprint, but a marathon.

An emphasis on testing

To be eligible for the high-profile federal program, schools had to be among the lowest-performing in their states, and had to agree to one of four turnaround approaches — from closing their doors and starting over, to a largely "improve what's there" approach that Seattle Public Schools chose for West Seattle and two other schools.

At West Seattle, that meant getting a new principal, a slightly longer school day, many new teachers and an expectation that each teacher would get results — or be asked to leave.

To help bring about the changes, the school received a three-year grant totaling $1.2 million.

The Seattle Times has been following what happened at the school in this inaugural year.

The staff worked hard all year — some nearly to the point of burnout. Half the teachers were new to the school, and it took time to learn to work together.

The results of the district's midyear test, given in January, helped ease some of the stress, reassuring staff that what they were doing was working.

But the spring tests would be scrutinized even more, and as they approached, teachers prepped students both academically and emotionally, many sitting down with each student one-on-one to set ambitious goals.

One 5th-grader, for example, had scored 12 points higher in reading from fall to winter — more than many students gain in a full year. When she sat down with teacher Tara Slinden, Slinden encouraged her to try for 12 more, so she'd hit grade level.

"Do you think you can do that?" Slinden asked.

The girl nodded.

"I think you can. You're a tremendously talented reader now. Do you know that? Do you feel that? Do you believe that?"

And when test day arrived, some teachers pumped up their classes like coaches before a crucial game.

"You start strong, but you finish stronger," teacher Damian Joseph told his third-graders as they headed off to their last exam.

A tall man with a booming voice, Joseph has a way of inspiring his students to work harder. He knows the challenges some of them face because he, too, grew up poor. But he also knows they can do it, because he did.

All the way to the testing room, he kept the pep talk going.

"Let's do this," he said, as students lined up at the door. At the first corner in the hall: "We don't back down." At the top of the stairs: "Everybody say it: 'Finish stronger.' "

Not that it's all about testing. While Joseph and the other teachers want scores to go up, they also want to inspire students to love learning, to be good citizens.

That said, they concentrated heavily throughout the year on the tested subjects — mostly reading and math. It wasn't until after the tests were behind them, with just a few weeks of school left, that Joseph started cursive writing and brought out one of the science experiments he'd felt were too time-consuming to do earlier.

Mixed results

For Joseph, the district math test went very well.

Three-quarters of his students hit the national average for third-graders at the end of the year. In reading, however, it didn't go quite as well.

About 30 minutes after that test started, the first student to finish stood up and walked up to Joseph. Because it's an online test, students learn their score right after the last question — and she told him she earned a 199, point short of the national average.

Joseph didn't hide his disappointment. He felt she'd rushed and told her so. She frowned.

A boy finished next — another student Joseph worried had gone too fast. But he earned a 212.

And so it continued over the next hour. Students who hit the 200 mark bounded up to Joseph with big smiles. Most of the others reported their results with long faces.

After the last student finished, Joseph quickly did a tally. Fifty-five percent scored 200 or more. Not bad, he said, but he had hoped for at least 60 percent.

Looking to next year

The other good news at year's end was that most of the teachers plan to return in the fall.

Only four are leaving — and none, Sacco said, due to burnout or discontent.

Of those who are departing, Sacco dismissed one for poor performance. The art teacher also won't return because Sacco decided to replace school-day art lessons with science — a sore point with some teachers but one Sacco said she made for a number of reasons, including the fact that she needs the art room for a classroom next year. She promises to continue art in other ways.

The others left for personal reasons, including Chrissie Coxon, now Chrissie Wright, who got married a few months ago and accepted a job as director of the children's ministry for her church, Mars Hill.

Back in September, fresh from a New Jersey charter school, she had dubbed her fourth-grade class the Stanford Class of 2023 to inspire students to think about college. Her year wasn't quite as good as she'd hoped. She got the results she wanted on one reading assessment — a class average showing more than one year of growth — but not on the MAP.

Sacco has already filled three of the four empty teaching positions, and is deep into planning for next fall. This year, she focused first on creating high expectations for learning and behavior. Next year, she'll go deeper into improving instruction.

As for the state report, Sacco still hasn't shared it with staff. She will — but not just yet. For now it sits in her file drawer, where it will stay until fall. For morale's sake, she wanted the staff to end the year basking in the progress, not worried about all the work yet to come.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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