Staying After School
The recession has given public schools more poor students to teach and less money to do it with. Estimates from the census bureau show the number of children living on public assistance more than doubled during the recession in the Highline School District. Highline serves the Burien area.
This year, a couple of teachers at an elementary in Highline decided to keep teaching after the school day ended. Their story is part three of "Paramount Duty," our series on children, parents, teachers and the recession. KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher reports.
I've been to Seahurst Elementary twice after the school day. My second time, I kept hearing:
PA: (bus announcement)
Wesley Smith: "There's some emergency situation over where quite a few of these kids live."
Wesley Smith teaches 5th grade. He explained a bunch of Seahurst kids live near the same apartment complex and during the school day they heard someone was shot there.
Smith: "So they wanted to keep the kids away from that and the buses can't get in and out of there either because there's so much of a police presence. So the kids were held here. Parents were contacted to come and pick up their kids."
Wesley Smith and Kelly Davidson have taught at Seahurst for years. They haven't had this exact thing happen before —
Davidson: "Although we're well aware of problems in that neighborhood that happen frequently."
Wesley and Kelly are the two 5th grade teachers at Seahurst. They call their students impressive.
Seahurst is a high–poverty school. Wesley says many of their students lack the means to succeed in school.
Smith: "They could have eight or nine people living in a two–bedroom apartment. They have no place to do their homework. They have no time to do their homework because they're being imposed upon to be the babysitters for the youngers. Their parents work, and they work very hard. But they're not available at the time to help, especially in math."
He noticed early in the school year that their students were not ready for 5th grade math. So did Kelly Davidson.
Davidson: "So we started talking about what we could do to help them, and one of us had the idea, well, you know, we're here until 4:00 p.m. at least most days anyway, why can't they come in and use our classroom as a place to get their homework done, and we could just go about our business working around them and helping them as needed?"
Gradually, it turned into something more.
Smith: "We were able to really ramp up the amount of attention we could give to the individuals if they needed it. There would be situations where we could see nearly all of them struggling with a very similar concept, so we could just call a time–out and run a mini–lesson for them."
And Homework Club was born.
About half a dozen kids were there when I visited. They worked on a lesson that would take most adults back in time, but in a way that's unfamiliar. It's math, but it's also data collection.
The students have a list of names. They have to count how many letters in each student's name and then graph how many students have eight–letter names, how many have nine–letter names, on and on until every student is counted.
It takes time to explain. The students argue over how to do it. They're not sure how to explain what they're doing. One by one, some of them get it. It's fun to watch.
Not too long after Kelly and Wesley started the Homework Club, they saw results. The kids they had invited to Homework Club had some of the lowest math scores at the beginning of the year.
Davidson: "And yet, they were jumping out of their seats hoping I'd call on them to answer a question in math class so that they could show what they knew in front of all of their peers."
Christina Larsen: "If those students weren't given that extra opportunity to learn after school, I don't think that they could have made, like, the 23 points of growth that some of them showed in between the fall and the winter tests."
Christina Larsen is Kelly and Wesley's boss, the principal of Seahurst Elementary.
The Homework Club made a difference that showed up in test scores and it wasn't costing anything because Kelly and Wesley were teaching for free. But back in the fall, it was getting darker and darker earlier. Kids started to drop out of the Homework Club because their parents felt it wasn't safe to let them walk home.
Then something amazing happened. The school got more money.
Larsen: "After our October 1 counts, it became clear that our school had many more English Language Learners (ELL) than had been projected."
Each ELL student draws $500 in state money to the school.
Larsen: "And because we had more students than projected, I had about $21,000 to all of a sudden work with for the school year."
Christina was able to get a school bus so kids could get a ride home after Homework Club. She was able to pay Kelly and Wes for their time. Other teachers could start their own programs after school. Some could get paid and they would all know their students would be able to get home safely.
Christina says it's been great in a school year that's been financially frustrating.
Larsen: "And it's been frustrating because as we've lost some of our grants and stuff over the years, not because we did something wrong, just because there's not as much money to have. It gets more and more difficult to help all of our students succeed and we've struggled in keeping our scores high as our need has gone up and our resources have diminished."
Christina won't get results on the federally–mandated tests until the fall. But after we spoke, the Homework Club students took another test and repeated the 20–point gains they had shown in the winter. Something she says wouldn't have happened if Kelly and Wes hadn't been willing to start the club in the first place.
Christina says everyone on her staff pulls their weight, and then some. Even her employees who aren't teachers help out. They work under a different contract, and —
Larsen: " — if they were to volunteer time, which I'm not saying that they do or they don't, it would be a violation of, like, labor laws."
She pauses. She smiles and she says she wants to publicly thank her staff.
Christina says she and her staff plan to continue the after–school programs next year even though her budget is taking a hit of about $30,000.
Tomorrow, a superintendent and a school board member who ask businesses and legislators for money now that there's even less to go around.
I'm Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News.
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