MELISSA WESTBROOK and Charlie Mas have been schooling parents on the local public education system for four years at the Save Seattle Schools blog (saveseattleschools.blogspot.com), a meticulously researched compendium of news about and analysis of Seattle Public Schools. We asked them to weigh in with their priorities for getting the most out of public schools in Seattle.
The district’s number one goal should be to support students. How to do this? We need to provide early and effective interventions for every child working below grade level as well as ensure that those who are working beyond grade level are given access to challenging curricula. But most important, the district must fulfill its commitment to “academic assurances.” When SPS wrote the new student assignment plan, it noted certain items that were important for all schools, including special education, gifted programs, and bilingual services. Committing to individual student needs would send a powerful message about what this district is willing to do to make sure that every student succeeds.
1. Start students thinking about college early. For example, frame every single teacher’s college diploma and put it at child’s-eye level near the classroom door. Make sure every teacher references that diploma throughout the school year.
2. Get help to struggling students fast. The Everett School District launched an aggressive multiyear effort in 2003 to graduate more students, and it worked: By 2010, the district graduation rate had spiked from 53 percent to 90 percent. Teachers identified every high school student who was in academic trouble (and in some cases used Facebook to determine what happened to students who stopped showing up for class) and, with the help of full-time “success coordinators,” they designed personalized tutoring and encouragement strategies to get students back on track. This kind of intervention needs to happen in SPS across all grade levels.
3. Increase access to special education. SPS’s new student assignment plan includes having more special ed students in general education classrooms in their neighborhood school, rather than sending them to schools farther from home with larger special ed programs. Under the new system, most teachers need an instructional aide at least part of the day to give those students the one-on-one attention and guidance they need, and that currently isn’t happening. The district must provide teachers with the necessary support to meet this inclusion goal.
4. Maintain high-quality programs for gifted students. The district’s gifted programs are part of the Advanced Learning department. This system is popular, but with the new student assignment plan’s emphasis on neighborhood schools, the district needs to do more to make sure each program has the same quality and services from school to school. And the schools themselves must continue to reach out to minority students who are underrepresented in these programs by doing something as simple as calling parents of gifted students to outline the benefits of the program.
5. Offer more support for bilingual services. Nearly 129 languages are represented in the district, and it’s a big task to try to address bilingual students’ needs. But the district has long been neglectful of these programs, especially at the secondary level. For example, last year the district moved its Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center—a transitional program for new foreign students—into the decrepit building that used to house Meany Middle School. And millions of capital-building fund dollars promised to the program have yet to be spent. A firm financial commitment needs to be focused on these students.
6. Expand language immersion programs. What might also help with bilingual services is better access to immersion programs for all students. When the John Stanford International Elementary School began offering such classes in Spanish in 2000 and Japanese in 2001, they were an instant hit. The district now has two other elementary schools with language immersion programs. Yet, not only are these attendance-area schools (meaning only students in that assigned area have access to those programs), the district hasn’t rolled out a comparable program at any SPS high school for those students to continue their studies. The district needs to commit to a timeline for expanding these options.