The $3,000,000 Goodbye: Where We Gonna Go From Here?


Dearest James,

Yes, it’s the summer, but I can’t help it. A bow must be tied around this conversation for the 2012-13 school year – so here it is.

Three years ago, my middle school received a grant for about 3 million dollars to change the way that we did education. And if we applied for this grant now, we would not receive such monies. Why? Because we would not qualify as a Persistently Low Achieving School.

Time’s up. The money is spent. And we now return to the typical middle school funding model, which is there is no funding. Make it work.

And werk it, we will.

If we look at what will happen next year, you will notice some differences – some good, some not so great. I’ll let you make the call.

  • STEM-focused Tech Ed and Yearbook will be during the school day (versus after school) next year because funding the after school bus was gone.
  • Spanish/Drama will move to a 0.8 FTE.
  • Language Arts will receive their own Computer Lab on Wheels (COW).
  • A dean of students, who will be working with discipline, will be replacing our now gone Assistant Principal.
  • In-School Suspension will continue to be a focus of the school-wide discipline policy.
  • A math teacher position was dissolved.

There are some real changes that will be happening next year – hopefully, many things that you will notice.

  • Students entering high school will be better readers. In my class alone, about 70%+ of the students are now reading at a fluency level ‘Z’ (approximately 8th grade level).
  • More students will be used to longer work times in reading and math. At Chinook, these are always two-hour blocks, if you did not pass the MSP.
  • Standards-Based Grading would not be a new assessment technique. Students will have seen it before. They also are used to redoing assessments and tests, if they did not do well the first time.

So what? What about next year?

  • Chinook has officially adopted the SpringBoard curriculum from College Board, as a Pre-AP course. This should help students to become prepared for the Common Core State Standards, particularly at a high school level.
  • Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Language Arts classroom at Global and an Advisory at ACE. (In fact, it was yours!) It was amazing. We must make moves like that in order to push our students towards success as a service area. I will be talking to both Language Arts staffs this year and pushing for more alignment vertically – as your middle school seeks to support students in their freshman year and beyond.

I think that’s it. I’ve seen so much growth at Chinook in the six years I’ve been there. I can’t wait to see what’s next as this new breed of Thunderbird transforms into a Totem for the next four years.

Happy Summer.



Saying Yes and No at the Same Time


Dear James,

I apologize for the long wait of the post, however as a mutual friend of ours puts it, I wanted to give your response the attention that it deserves. (In other words, I was busy with oh, I don’t know – life?! Haha.)

The small school experience is something that every student deserves. Every student deserves to be known by her or his ‘name, strength, and need’ – something that our own superintendent believes. If that becomes our premise, then this also means that going to a 1500+ school may not be the best choice for our students. But there is always a catch.

During my junior and senior years of high school, I went to a Gates Grant school. My school was a 4A school and this meant that it was to be transformed with a small schools model. This meant that at some point the transition needed to go down seamlessly. Every couple of months, my principal met with our Class of 2004. He would break down the on-track to graduate numbers for us, chat with us about what we want for our school, and be the ‘dad.’ One day, he told us about the small schools move.

(Let me remind you that I’m not as old as my students think.)

“Wait, what?” I whispered to my other AP friends in the gigantic auditorium.

“He’s telling us that we won’t be able to take any class with any teacher we want? Like we used to?”

I was a good Christian kid back then, otherwise my next word would have been bull. I loved our principal. For being the administrative head of 1500 students, he knew my friends and me well. (Maybe it was because we actually tried on the WASL.)

Now, as a Honors/AP student, I was only thinking about my college transcript. This did not bode well. I wanted Mr. Slater for AP American Government and Politics. I wanted to take senior year Mock Trial. I wanted AP Biology. Yep, that was me. Nobody was going to jeopardize that for me. I worked too hard and too long for a school to flip the script on me. The school received my stellar WASL scores. It was time for me to get something in return.

I became a part of a senior class of a 4A school moving towards the small school format and none of us liked it. Suddenly, half of my friends from sophomore-junior year were in Mr. Dodge’s AP Politics class when we envisioned taking Slater together. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

My pastor said that in order for us to move into something new God wants us to do, we must leave from someplace we currently are. I tell my students something similar, “By saying yes to this, you must by definition say no to that.”

James, this is my small schools argument: by saying ‘yes’ to small schools and the perks of it, you are saying ‘no’ to a comprehensive high school and the perks of such an experience.

With only a little more than half of your students graduating on time, what steps are we to take to ensure success? Why is a comprehensive high school a bad idea?

Every year, students come up to the 8th grade teachers (like myself), asking for honest, unadulterated feedback. The only thing I can really say is, “Well, I went to a school more like Mount Rainier.”

Are we saying that there is no student voice in a comprehensive high school? No. They have ASB.

Are we saying that there is no personalization of curriculum in a comprehensive high school? No. They have Advisory.

Are we saying that teachers don’t ‘know’ students by name, strength, and need in a comprehensive high school? No. Teachers care about their kids.

And so, I ask:

In a comprehensive high school, could academies be created to create community within hallways, teachers, and students? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, is there a more diverse selection of classes and electives offered? Yes.

By offering more of a selection of classes, will our students be ready to compete transcript versus transcript at an Admissions Office when they apply for university? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, are there more opportunities for students to take core Math and Reading classes that are more differentiated (i.e. SpEd Math, Reading Essentials, Algebra Lab, Honors 9th Grade Lit & Comp, etc.)? Yes.

By increasing staffing (thereby becoming Big Tyee), could there be more chances for students to have all of the opportunities above? Yes.

Respectfully submitted,


For Best Results, Add Color.


Dear James,

You and I are very different. While I appreciate what you said about what happens when you take education into a vacuum and get rid of politics and money, I’m afraid politics and money is where this conversation must go.

As much I hate it, the conversation about education is largely about money.

And No Child Left Behind.

And money.

And student achievement.

And money.

So what do our students need?

1. Boundaries

I start with boundaries because it is something that translates both inside and outside school walls. Part of being a member of school community, it means that 500+ different families are being ‘forced’ to work together, eat together, and essentially, dwell together under one roof for eight hours a day. And that means that there are 500+ different sets of rules that must be pared down to a few that every family would agree with.

And yet, my most difficult students struggle with these boundaries.


Because boundaries are hard. Yet, the world demands them. If we want to raise students who believe in democracy, then we need to raise students who value other voices and opinions.

2. A Supportive Adult Who Knows Them Deeply

James, you covered component number 2 well, so I won’t spend extra time on this.

3. Someone to Look Up To That Looks Like Them

As I walk in our respective hallways, I notice something very distinct: a lack of color.

And if you ask students, about the color of their teachers, they know it and they notice it.  James, our students are no longer at the age where they don’t see the color of their skin. You and I both know that if we ask our students about who is teaching them, it is quite possible that a given student doesn’t have a teacher that looks like them.

I say it quite often with my friends (and I consider you one) and I’ll say it again: By being a black male, I automatically have a particularly distinct voice that other non-minority teachers don’t have. If we want students to ‘make it’, then they must have real-life examples in front of them of people who have ‘made it’ speaking into their life.

4. Help to Plan Their Future

James, you also wrote eloquently on the importance of students needing help with their future. As teachers and caring adults, our job is to help them apply their skills to the ‘real world.’

5. To Be ‘Smart’

The final thing that our students want is to be ‘smart.’ But what does that mean? For me, it seems that students want to be seen by the world as knowledgeable about particular things. This is the reason that I consistently hold to being an essentialist in my teaching philosophy. Students need to know…

the powers of the President, Congress, and the Courts (civics),

who wrote Romeo & Juliet (English),

how companies persuade us to buy their goods and services (marketing),

how to change a recipe if you need more or less of it (math),

why is it that Superstorm Sandy was so devastating (science).

So what is the purpose of education? It is to create an environment of diverse learners and teachers that establish boundaries that imitate society so as to yield the best results in making students ‘smart.



“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.

“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.