“Tears started to stream down from my eyes, I covered them in fear, I went flying down the hill like a maniac, I had nowhere to go.”
Well, actually, I had a lot of places to go on the Magic Bus Tour of Seattle Schools, in Washington State, with Our Schools Coalition, a foundation grantee, last Friday. On a visit to three schools that day, we were eager to see some of the significant student achievement improvements in Seattle Public Schools.
The first stop was Mercer Middle School in the Beacon Hill area of Seattle where students are learning to write very descriptive sentences like the one above, found on a hallway wall. Students at Mercer Middle School are all about learning. As the Seattle Times noted yesterday in an article about the school’s success, students have made huge gains in math, science, reading, and writing.
Teacher in class at Asa Mercer Middle School in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
Mercer Middle School is a shining example. Of the 925 middle-schoolers who have made amazing gains on Washington state assessments, 77 percent are on free and reduced lunch.
All classes at the school are above the state and district average on the Measures of Student Progress (MSP) test. Eighty-four percent of eighth graders met proficiency in science last year. Very few schools in Washington State can make that claim.
“What’s the secret sauce?” we asked the school’s principal, Susan Toth.
“We focus on instruction and relationships with kids. We know our students really well. We set ambitious goals. We partner with our families. We stretch every minute. We are on it all the time. Our teachers collaborate and work as team. We use data for everything from tracking attendance to determining the effectiveness of our interventions,” she told us.
Teachers visit with all the students’ families in their homes, and a family summit is held each year conducted in families’ native languages including Cantonese, Spanish, Somali, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. The summit allows them to share their hopes and dreams for their children.
Toth added, “My job is to empower my teachers and get out of their way.”
But the success doesn’t stop at Mercer Middle School. At Catherine Blaine K-8 school in Magnolia, another Seattle school we visited that day, we met principal Heather Swanson and listened to second graders read the extremely popular Captain Underpants stories.
Self-portraits created by a first grade class at West Seattle Elementary School.
At West Seattle Elementary, a K-5 school, I watched kindergartners mix different color paints and dab them onto paper-mache bottles under the eyes of friendly parent helpers (alas, mixing green, red, yellow, blue, white, and orange does not make purple).
Throughout the day, we sat down with principals to talk about what makes success.
Common themes emerged: value teachers as professionals, focus on data, celebrate kids and view students as scholars, and provide high expectations and positive interactions with kids.
As West Seattle Elementary principal Vicki Sacco told us, “We need to create a culture as one which builds leaders and then improve on it. I give gentle pressure relentlessly applied.”
A few years ago, parents in the neighborhood didn’t even call the school by its name—West Seattle Elementary. Most called it High Point School. But last year, West Seattle became one of the district’s Federal School Improvement Grant schools. Achieving success is now the mantra. Two-thirds of the staff was replaced this past year. With hard work, a new principal and the use of a turnaround model, this year the school made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time since 2004-05. The school moved from a level one (the lowest level) to a level three in just one year.
As one teacher noted, “Success is all about the people—the teachers, community and business leaders, administrators and parents—all working together to create the best outcomes for students.” Definitely words to inspire us all.