Thursday, July 27, 2017 This Week's Paper

Inside the system

// How Tacoma's SIG schools face the challenge of creating sustainable improvements

When the doors opened at Giaudrone Middle School this past fall, it was hardly recognizable to most students. With a new principal, new staff, and longer school days on the horizon, many students had no idea what to expect. What they did know: their school was labeled as “failing” and had been placed on a list of the lowest-performing middle schools in the state.

This designation allowed the school to receive $1.5 million in school improvement grant (SIG) funding this school year alone, but also required administrators to follow one of several possible intervention models. In the Tacoma school district, Stewart and Giaudrone middle schools adopted the turnaround model, requiring them to replace the principal, screen all existing staff members and rehire no more than 50 percent of the original teachers.

Giaudrone kept 14 teachers, and conducted about 200 interviews to hand-select the remainder of the staff.

“There was a definite sense of loss among the students in the beginning of the school year,” Principal Zeek Edmond admitted. “There were seventh-graders who felt the teacher or activity they were looking forward to had been stolen from them. But, we’ve kept our message consistent that the opportunities available to them now are exciting and very positive.”

For Edmond, the former principal of high-achieving, high-minority, low-income Fawcett Elementary, the prospect of taking on SIG school was a daunting idea – but one he ultimately accepted with enthusiasm.

“I was asked by the deputy superintendent on a Thursday, and I had until Monday to make a decision,” Edmond said. “I called back the next day to accept the job, because I saw great potential in this role. Kids don’t arrive here with these test scores – there are events that happen along the way that cause these struggles.”

This year, the Tacoma Education Association (TEA) made site visits to each of Tacoma’s three existing SIG middle schools to report on the grant’s impact on teachers, students and test scores. According to approximately 25 discussions with teachers at Giaudrone, there was unanimous support for the dramatic changes that have been implemented this year. Many teachers cited a more unified staff working as a team to carry out a new vision of education.

Teachers also commented on the increased emphasis on math at Giaudrone. With an alternating schedule of four 80-minute classes every other day, math is the only subject taught each day. The math department now shares a planning period to collaborate and work as a team to develop lessons that will help students succeed.

“We came here with a big job to do,” said math teacher Heather Patterson, who is new to the school this year.

Math teacher Billy Harris added that the students are now fully aware of the high expectations teachers hold them to.

“They’re starting to put forth more effort to be successful on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The grant funding provides additional resources that allow math instructors to occasionally sit in on classes to experience how others teach. “Professional development is a very big focus now,” Edmond said. “Allowing these teachers to observe their colleagues and ultimately make suggestions creates more refined lesson planning.”

Stewart Middle School also opened its doors under a turnaround model this school year, with a staff of more than 50 percent new teachers, including 21 first-year instructors and a new principal. Teachers expressed strong support for longer class periods and the variety of electives now offered to students. The school is also focusing on increasing parental involvement through its monthly Essential Element Night, which aims to inform parents of academic progress as well as achievements in the arts and music.

Inside the doors of Jason Lee, less dramatic changes were made under its transformation model, which allowed it to keep the existing principal Jon Kellett and overhaul only one-third of its staff. Although the school has adopted less drastic instructional changes, it did introduce gender tracking this year, which separates girls and boys in certain core classes. Many teachers agree that students in these courses, such as sixth-grade math/science and language arts/history, focus better and are less distracted. 

According to TEA reports, some teachers expressed frustration with the lack of training to deal with implementing gender tracking adequately. Some teachers also expressed the need for more counselors and social workers to address the underlying struggles their students face on a daily basis. Several other Jason Lee teachers expressed their desire to play a more active role in the SIG process and to have input on the changes that will be implemented.

For all three of Tacoma’s existing SIG schools – all schools with at least 68.8 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch – the opportunity to create a sustainable model for improvement is here. Even young students at Giaudrone can sense that these are important times, and that change is here to stay.

Seventh grader Megan Cervania said her teachers are more serious this year, and more focused on making sure students understand each topic.

Eighth grader Tatyana Jones said the longer class periods force her to pay closer attention to each lesson. “I know that if I don’t pay attention during these long classes now, I’m going to be really lost,” she said. “My grades are up this year, and I’m learning to ask the right questions if I don’t understand something.”

For Tacoma’s “failing” schools, something seems to be working.