Washington School Makes Remarkable Turnaround, Credits Saturday Classes
The plan to offer Saturday classes at a Washington elementary school started as a joke.
Dana Reynolds jokingly told her 3rd grade class that students should come to school on Saturdays, and they ran with it.
"All of a sudden, they were like, 'Yeah, that's a great idea. We should go into school from 10 'til 3,' " said Reynolds. "At lunchtime, they went in the lunchroom, and they're telling kids we're coming to school on Saturdays."
That chatter soon reached the school staff.
"The next thing we knew the custodian was in the principal's office saying, 'What's this about Saturday school? I think we need to get a custodian in,' " said Reynolds.
After seeing the students' enthusiasm, administrators started seriously thinking about the idea and asked themselves some key questions.
"Why are we constrained by these certain times or days, if parents are willing to and able to, and kids are willing to and able to come on a Saturday, why not utilize that time where kids are fresh and teachers are fresh?" asked Ralph Wisner, the school's principal.
And, that's how the Saturday School Learning Club was born at Thompson Elementary in Tacoma, Wash., which is an urban area about 45 miles south of Seattle. More than 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, and 60 percent of the students are minorities.
The club began meeting in February and just had its last session for this school year on May 21. The creation of the club coincided with the school increasing its focus on academics, and administrators and teachers are calling it a big success. After the implementation of Saturday classes, the school went from being ranked 14th out of 17 schools in the district for academic achievement among students in 3rd through 5th grades to being ranked fifth.
"A lot of that has to do with the intentionality within the school day, but a lot of it has to do with the kids who came to Saturday school," said Wisner.
He says the classes on Saturday led to an attitude change for many students. They began to think they could achieve, and they wanted to be successful in school. The students also took ownership over their learning.
Initially, the club was supposed to be just for students who needed a little extra help, but it became a place for everyone.
"We had kids who were below grade level in reading, and we had kids who were above grade level in reading who joined the program and the same for math," said Wisner.
Students participating in the club attended school from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday. Seven teachers led the classes, and about 100 students took part in the program consistently from week-to-week. It was open to students in 3rd through 5th grades. The students began their sessions as a group with some physical activity, then they recited their school pledge before breaking off into grade levels for academic work. After a session on reading or math, the students spent some time outside for recess, then came inside for a snack provided by the school, and had a read-aloud session before starting a second session of academic enrichment.
"Sometimes, I could take an hour and a half, two hours, just breaking down one reading passage and acting it out and having the kids get that background knowledge of what they needed, and they could learn how to really dig into material and find the deeper meaning," said Reynolds.
But she admits some parents took a little convincing before they got behind the program.
"As they witnessed the growth and the looking forward to going to school on Saturday, everyone got onboard," said Reynolds.
Shelley Ramirez, the school's assistant principal, also credits a little positive peer pressure.
"As an administrator, it's amazing to walk down the halls and have the kids stop and say, 'Ms. Ramirez, I passed this, or I did this, or I know my multiplication facts,' and if there are students standing around them, they ask, 'Can we go to Saturday school', basically asking for an opportunity to learn," said Ramirez. "Kids were talking about it, encouraging each other, and inviting one another."
The program was supported by extended-day funds the district received for Title I schools. So the teachers who participated were compensated for their time, and Wisner said they were happy to do it.
"They stepped up, and said I'll come every Saturday," said Wisner. "I had another principal ask me, 'How did you get your teachers to do it?' And, I said, 'I asked who wanted to do it, and they raised their hands.' I think that shows the dedication of our staff, the dedication of our district to really be leaders in helping kids realize their potential."
They also said the parents deserve credit for bringing the kids to school and picking them up at the end of the day. And, many parents went a step further and volunteered their time.
"Some of our curriculum is new, and they wanted to see how to do it and how they could help their child at home," said Ramirez. "We had plenty of parents that would come in, grandparents that stayed for the morning and helped out. It was nice to see the community come together like that."
The school is already making plans to have the Saturday School Learning Club again next year. Some of the money used to support the program this year won't be in place then, but Wisner says his staff has agreed to use funds that are normally set aside to pay teachers for attending professional development to cover the costs.
"The staff has actually said we'd be willing to give up getting paid for those kinds of things and still come to them free of charge in order to fund Saturday school, so the staff has really seen the value in it," said Wisner, who heaps lots of praise on the school community for seeing a problem and then rather than bemoaning what they couldn't do about it focusing on what they could accomplish.
"There's lots of things that we say we can't do that we really do have some control over," said Wisner. "This time frame of Monday through Friday 9 a.m. 'til 3:45 p.m., bell to bell, we can look at that a different way."
Photo: Students attend class during Thompson Elementary's Saturday School Learning Club in Tacoma, Wash. (Shelley Ramirez)
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