“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.


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

    • Getting rid of lockers had a couple of benefits: (1) Teachers no longer had to write passes for students to ‘go to their locker’ because the student forgot something. (2) It cleared the hallways of distractions because of fact #1. If those are the measuring sticks used to designate success or failure, I say it’s been a success.

  1. And if students were allowed access to their lockers in the morning it created a greater incidence of fighting/trouble or what we lovingly call the “whirlwind effect” in which they keep circling the school. Other changes include students no longer being allowed in the hallways before school and staff being on hall duty when they are.

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