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Low-Performing Wash. School Jumps to Top 50 Percent With Longer Days, Year

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One of the lowest-performing schools in Washington State has moved to the top half of the state's elementary schools three years into a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) that included lengthening the school day and year and replacing the principal.

Lakeridge Elementary School in suburban Seattle's Renton School District ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide and was labeled a persistently low-performing school when it received the $3 million SIG grant starting in the 2011-12 school year. 

Earlier this month, the state superintendent of public instruction and other state education officials paid a surprise visit to the school bearing cupcakes and balloons to congratulate students for surpassing the state average in math and 3rd grade reading, and coming close to the state average in 4th and 5th grade reading.

"You've done something few other schools have done: become a high-performing school," state Assistant Superintendent Andy Kelly, told students and staff in a message tweeted out that day.

Lakeridge Improvement.pngOf the school's 420 kindergarten through 5th grade students, 88 percent are eligible for free and reduced price lunches and a little over one-third are English-learners. Somali is the most prevalent native language, followed by Spanish.  The mobility rate—the percentage of kids who move in and out of the school during the year—is one of the highest in the district.

Under the original 2010 SIG regulations, schools had to select one of four increasingly severe improvement models: closure; a restart as a charter; turnaround, including hiring a new principal, extending the school day and/or year and rehiring no more than half the teachers; and transformation, which also calls for replacing the principal and increasing learning time. Schools also had to select a research-based improvement strategy and professional development model.

Lakeridge chose transformation and added 30 minutes to the school day and five days to the school year—nearly four extra weeks of school. The grant also gave Lakeridge more latitude to develop a curriculum and assessments tailored to its new mandate of bringing all students to grade level within three years.

"I think one of the most powerful elements of all this was our operational flexibility," said Jessica Calabrese, the new principal brought as part of the transformation agreement. She and the teachers and academic coaches were constantly looking at the data, and if something wasn't working, they changed it immediately. 

It was the "opposite of typical education culture," said Calabrese. "We had that permission and expectation that if it isn't working then you change it now."

Teachers had strong motivation to make it work. Student growth was a significant factor in their evaluation under the SIG program. If they met their goal of getting students caught up, teachers earned a $1,000 federal incentive bonus.

On the flip side, Calabrese hired new teachers on what's known as a "leave replacement" contract, meaning their contracts weren't renewed if their students didn't make the growth mark.

Now, four years later, Lakeridge is no longer designated as low performing and no longer receives federal support.  Gone is the extra half hour that gave them the time to hold regular evaluation sessions, revise their lesson plans, practice them, and put them into play, sometimes as soon as the next day.

But the school still has to keep students scoring at grade level. Calabrese said they received a small amount of money this year that the state pooled from bits of unspent SIG grants, but it's nowhere near enough to maintain the expanded school time. That costs about $250,000 a year.

"We have a new problem to solve now.  We got there [the state average], in part, due to the increased learning time, and we miss it," Calabrese said. 

Just last week, 2nd grade teachers were trying to figure out how to fit in the time to work with students who need additional help in math and reading, especially English-learners.

"Last year, that was not a problem we would have had to solve," she said.

Still, the school has a few advantages, said Calabrese.  Teachers and staff haven't lost their momentum and resolve, and, apparently, neither have the students.

Calabrese described a recent lesson where students had to come up with themes for a persuasive writing project, "and one of the topics that they brainstormed was to ask for that extra time back."

Lakeridge missed the opportunity to extend its expanded learning time by a couple of years. President Obama released new SIG guidance last year, which Education Week's Alyson Klein wrote about in September, that will let schools keep their grants for up to five years.

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