“Persistently Low Achieving School”: A Blessing in Disguise?


One day after school, instead of the typical staff meeting, we were greeted warmly by two district officials and our principal at the time. None of us really knew what was going on – but all of us were wondering what was going to happen next.

Actually, James, that’s a terrible beginning. Maybe I should start a bit earlier – let’s try, say, two years prior – three, if you want to include my student teaching year.

The teachers at Chinook have always been very dedicated to the students of our neighborhood. It’s actually what drew me to stay at Chinook after getting my teaching certificate. You see it in the after school study sessions, the tutoring before school, or the mentoring during lunchtime. With a relatively high teacher retention rate (only about 3-4 teachers leaving per year, due to life circumstances much of the time), the staff worked hard. Yet even with a dedicated staff, the test scores weren’t showing the proper growth. Year after year Chinook wasn’t meeting dreaded AYP (adequate yearly progress), and year after year the government said through district officials that something would be done if we couldn’t raise student achievement ourselves.

See below for test scores through 2010 (before the school improvement grant):

Chart_002541 Chart_002542

Behind the scenes, something was being done. Prior to the aforementioned ‘staff meeting,’ if any school did not meet the standards set by No Child Left Behind, the district had to pay for transportation for students who did not want to attend the ‘failing’ school. So every morning, a bus would pull up to the Chinook bus zone and families who did not want to attend their neighborhood school opted to go to a different middle school.

And then, the other two middle schools in the district fell into the AYP-muck. Opting to go to another school was no longer an option. Suddenly, all students were required to attend their neighborhood school.

As all the staff sat in the Chinook library, we were all waiting with anticipation. After we said our cordial hellos and how-do-you-dos, we were informed of the work ahead of us. An algorithm was made. A list was formulated. A spreadsheet was created – and our names were on that list. The title?

Persistently Low Achieving Schools

We knew that the title was bad. We knew that the kids were working hard. We knew that the staff was working hard. So what did it mean?

It meant one of four things must happen at Chinook: (1) Turnaround: Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50% of the current staff, (2) Restart: Chinook is shut down and is reopened as a charter school, (3) Transformation: Replace the principal, reward staff for gains, increase learning time, and change the evaluation system, and (4) Closure: Chinook closes it doors for good.

We were heartbroken. We knew that the government said that they were going to do something. We didn’t know that they meant it this time.

“So, wait. Does that mean that [our principal] has to go?” a staff member seemed to whimper. All eyes were fixed on her.

“Yes. It seems that way. We will find her another home in Highline,” the district official spoke with care.

“But Chinook has been having these problems for longer than her tenure. She shouldn’t have to go.” The staff was growing upset.

“In order for us to get the money to apply for this grant, we must replace the principal.” There you had it. But who would be taking her place?

There was work to be done. In the coming months, Chinook would embark on an adventure. Changes would have to be made. It was a competition. Every school applying for the School Improvement Grant (SIG) wouldn’t receive the money. Chinook needed to change. The community knew it. We knew it. The District knew it. Therefore, a design team was built. All stakeholders with representatives of all of the above groups came together talking about what a ‘Transformation’ would look like for Chinook. The New Look of Chinook became the catch phrase around the staff room.

After pain-staking work, changes were made. We got the money: about $3,000,000-ish dollars over three years.

Below are some of the changes that came with The New Look:

  • Social Studies is now semester-long course for both 7th graders and 8th graders.
  • A math coach and a literacy coach were hired to be full-time.
  • School uniforms are in their first year of implementation.
  • An additional assistant principal was added for both instructional leadership and discipline.
  • PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) is being implemented and has yielded many days for student learning in the classroom, including the implementation of an In School Suspension program.
  • Students who do not pass the reading or math portions of the state test must take a second remedial class to catch up.
  • Electives Technology Education (formerly known as Shop Class) and Visual Arts are now periods 2 through 7, so that students who have no electives during the day can take it after school.
  • Staff members, before the first SIG year, had an informal ‘recommitment conversation’ with the new principal. Staff that wanted to leave were guaranteed placement elsewhere in the District.
  • Lockers were removed and students carry their backpacks with them throughout the day.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying such a dramatic change — but the test scores speak for themselves. See below for most recent scores at Chinook:

Chart_022428 Chart_022429

There are still things to be learned, but there you have it.

The video shows a lot of great things happening at Chinook. Some changes have been made since the clip was created, but it’s still an overview.


Laying Some Groundwork: What’s Going on at ACE

Dear Evin,

https://i2.wp.com/archive.hsd401.org/ourschools/highschools/ace/images/ACEspaceneedle.JPGMaybe we can save the debate over the merits of Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy for a little later on. What I’m more interested in kicking our blog off with is some discussion about where we’re at – what’s going on at ACE and Chinook.

Maybe we could start by telling each other a little about our schools. But bear with me, I can only tell you what I’ve learned over the past year and a half.

Beginning in 2006, Tyee High School was broken into three autonomous small schools under the assumption that small schools would better support students’ academic achievement. Tyee had a history of underperformance, and people felt change was needed. (Click on “Big Tyee’s” last year of OSPI data below to enlarge it.)

Staff were empowered to shape the design of the new schools. They did their homework and choose the school model they wanted.

The Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) was founded as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Social justice was its theme. You can read an interesting article by a student from the first graduating class here. It provides some insight into what the original school’s vision must have been. Student voice was valued; staff attempted to find agreement on most decisions before moving forward; and advisory was intended to be at the school’s heart.

A few years of OSPI data suggested ACE was driving student achievement in the right direction. Educators from schools across the country visited ACE as a national example of positive school reform.

Since the ’06-’07 school year, a lot has changed at ACE. There have been numerous leadership changes, and only a very small number of the staff who began with the school remain. Recent OSPI data have not been as positive as the early years. The current staff is engaged in re-framing their work under new district and building administration.

We are unique in that we offer American Sign Language, services for the deaf and hard of hearing, and AP Studio Art. We have 105-minute classes Monday through Thursday, and 43-minute classes on Friday. Advisory occurs Monday through Thursday between 1:30-2:05. Nearly all of our freshmen students are double-blocked in literacy and math, meaning they get double doses of both classes. A number of our upperclassmen take advantage of PSSC or Running Start as a means of earning early college credit.

That’s what’s going on at ACE. Is there anyone who would like to add anything?

Do you have any questions? And can you tell me a little about Chinook?



“I Always Thought Massachusetts Was a City?!”

massachusetts_90Every time, I left from a conversation with James, I thought that he was going to punch me in the face the next time he saw me.

James is someone who is — well, confident — in his opinions and I am also someone who is pretty dead set on what I believe about education. As I’ve learned from our conversations, he and I do in a strange way represent the two viewpoints on where education is and where education must go.

As you found out from my ‘About the Author’ section, I was an Honors student for my entire life and therefore, I know the bar that I want to set for all of my students. Growing up in a single-parent lower-middle income household was my life. And thus, it informs my decisions about where education is and where it must go.

“I thought Massachusetts was a city!” one of my students (now at Tyee) explained when I wore my Boston sweatshirt. That’s right. They thought that Massachusetts was a city. We all laughed it off, but it concerned me. These are 8th graders who after taking a semester of U.S. History couldn’t deduce that Boston was a city in the state of Massachusetts. It’s scary. For me, the bar starts with a basic knowledge of cultural literacy. When asked, students should be able to tell me that the Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, not 1942. (To read more about cultural literacy, read The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.) Even according to Bloom, in order to get to higher-levels of thinking, one must have a foundational knowledge of a given subject matter.

And so the conversation between James, myself, and you hopefully continues.

It’s Time to Talk

Anonymous_Chat_iconDear Evin,

I only began working in the Highline School District last year. At first, I didn’t quite realize the amount of controversy that existed around my small school, ACE. But over time, it became clear that lots and lots of people had lots and lots to say about what we were doing. I imagine conversations about the Tyee campus happening in small pockets in a great many places, although often lacking diverse perspectives – it is, after all, easier to speak your opinion freely when you know you’re in the company of like-minded people.

When I met you, I had no idea how far apart our educational philosophies were. I assumed, as I too often do, that we probably shared a number of beliefs that I’ve since discovered we don’t. In conversation after conversation, we began to find more and more differences to discuss.

I think it’s time to make a public place where differences like those between you and I can be discussed honestly and publicly, so that some of those little conversations can be brought to light for us as we consider the best way to serve the students in our community.

What do you say? Are you ready?