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$5.8M Grant Helps Struggling Seattle Schools

Ann Dornfeld

A few years ago, three struggling Seattle public schools got a $5.8 million federal grant to improve student achievement. It's called a School Improvement Grant (SIG). Across the country, the federal government has now awarded $4.5 billion to what it calls the nation's persistently lowest–achieving schools. Two years into Seattle's three–year grant, KUOW's Ann Dornfeld has this progress report.


There's a new back–to–school ritual for teachers and administrators at Hawthorne Elementary School.

Sandra Scott: "We take the data from all the students in the school at the beginning of the school year and we chart it. We have a data wall, we put it all up."

Principal Sandra Scott says they'll update that data wall with the students' latest test scores all school year.

She says nothing paints a clearer picture of how well teachers are doing their jobs.

Sandra Scott: "I mean, when you see the data, there is no discussion. You can have philosophy all you want to about this, that and the other, but the data is the proof within the pudding."

A couple years ago, only 21 percent of Hawthorne students passed the district math test. Just 16 percent of the students passed the reading test. Hawthorne had some of the lowest test scores in the district for years. Now the school is using a $1.5 million federal grant to try to dramatically boost student achievement.

To get the money, the district had to agree to change the way the school is run. That meant lengthening the school day, and a new business officer now frees up the principal to spend more time in the classroom. Principal Scott says that lets her help teachers use the data they're gathering to craft their lesson plans.

Sandra Scott: "Say, for example, if I had an instructional style that me, personally, I liked, and I thought it was just fantastic. If I'm not getting results, I need to do something."

Another big change: Teachers now all use the same curricula. That lets them work together on lesson plans to make sure there aren't gaps or redundancies in what kids are learning from year to year.

Fourth– and fifth–grade teacher Charlene Smith has been at Hawthorne for 10 years. She says changing to common curricula made a huge difference.

Charlene Smith: "There were times in the past where we've kind of — each teacher did what they did, and there was not a cohesiveness throughout the building. I am seeing now that I can talk to a kindergarten teacher as a fourth– and fifth–grade teacher about what she or he is doing in terms of reading or math or writing, and we can speak the same language."

After all of these changes, Hawthorne has seen marked improvements in student achievement. Since the grant began two years ago, the percentage of kids passing the reading test has nearly tripled.

Smith says before, she saw kids come to fourth and fifth grade with no interest in reading.

Charlene Smith: "I've seen kids get excited about books. I've seen them get excited about the fact that they can read multiple books over a school year. And they're coming to me asking to be tested so that they can go up different levels. And I really never saw that before."

Math scores are up, too. The percentage of kids passing the district math test has more than doubled.

On one of the final days of last school year, textbooks had been shelved in a lot of schools in favor of movie days and end–of–the–year parties. But in teacher Lanie Nowell's third–grade classroom, math lessons were still in high gear.

Lanie Nowell: "Everybody get the answer to that?"

Students: "Yes."

Lanie Nowell: "Miles, you wanna share what you got?"

Student: "136?"

Lanie Nowell: "136? Give him some feedback. Very, very good! Nice work."

Sound: Applause from students.

These third–graders had their own data wall: A handwritten poster listing the kids whose math scores improved the most on the last district test. It's a long list, but the math will be trickier next year, when the SIG money runs out.

That will be a shock to the system for Hawthorne, as well as West Seattle Elementary and Cleveland High, Seattle's two other SIG schools.

All have seen major improvements since the SIG money came. But they're dealing with the same question as other SIG schools around the country: How to maintain their gains when the grant is over.

Hawthorne teacher Charlene Smith says it's a stressful prospect.

Charlene Smith: "There are a few things that I'm concerned about. The extended day is one of them. I really want to see that continue, and that costs money."

A lot of money.

Most of Hawthorne's SIG dollars have gone toward lengthening the school day by 15 minutes. The school uses that time for an extra period at the end of the day focused on getting kids caught up when they're falling behind.

Some of the things that are working to improve student achievement won't be expensive.

SIG dollars covered some one–time costs, like teacher training and all–school curricula. And Smith says there are some things that have happened since the SIG dollars came that money can't buy, like the new, school–wide collaboration toward a common goal.

Charlene Smith: "I think we've made some really significant changes in this school. And I think that because of those changes, the entire atmosphere in this building has changed. And I think it has all changed for the better. I think the kids are coming in with a really positive attitude about what they're doing in school."

At Hawthorne, the hope is that those positive attitudes and improved atmosphere live on — even when the grant money is gone.

I'm Ann Dornfeld, KUOW News.

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