It’s amazing what a batch of bad test scores can do.
At Bemiss Elementary, news that students had the lowest standardized test scores in Spokane united a neighborhood.
Already struggling with 56 percent poverty, a constant movement of families in and out of the neighborhood and rising crime, neighborhood residents and teachers began looking for the problem.
“We knew we had good kids in our school,” said Teddie Green, a Bemiss neighborhood mother. “We knew we had good people in our neighborhood.
“We knew somehow we had to turn our neighborhood around.”
Three years later the northeast Spokane neighborhood is changing and may never look the same.
Already test scores have improved. Bemiss students’ scores now rank highest among Spokane schools with high rates of poverty. And neighbors - many of whom never ventured to know each other before - have found a meeting ground at Bemiss Elementary.
Here are some reasons why:
More than 40 adults formed the Bemiss site council to talk about solutions to neighborhood problems. The group has met every month for the past three years.
An after-school enrichment program keeps kids off the streets.
An evening program provides Bemiss neighborhood adults with classes leading to literacy or GEDs.
“We’re finding ways to improve our neighborhood not just for the children, but for everyone who lives in the Bemiss community,” Green said.
Bemiss Principal Dale McDonald likes to think of the neighborhood school as a neighborhood center. The school’s lights are on from 6:30 a.m., when tutoring sessions begin, all the way through evening adult education classes.
“I see the Bemiss neighborhood becoming a place where neighbors rely on neighbors, where people build relationships and keep them because they need each other,” he said. “But the success of this program doesn’t rest on me, it rests on the people in this neighborhood and what they want.”
After school one day last week, fourth grader Carmen Martinez joked she might be home cleaning if she weren’t still at a schoolsponsored 4-H club meeting.
Martinez, whose mom is in college, is one of the many potential latch-key children in the Bemiss neighborhood. Most families in the area couldn’t afford to pay for day care even if it were available.
Last year the Bemiss site council asked the school to develop an afterschool program that would keep children off the streets and away from gangs. And away from the traffic along Crestline or Euclid, two major arterials that run within blocks of the schools. Five Bemiss children have been hit by cars since September.
The program provides children like Martinez a different after-school activity every day of the week. On Mondays students work on a neighborhood newspaper, on Tuesdays the girls have Girl Scouts, on Wednesdays they have 4-H and the library club, on Thursdays Campfire, on Fridays a board game club meets.
VISTA volunteer Jaqueline Almdale, who is assigned to the Bemiss neighborhood, said Girl Scouts, Campfire and 4-H haven’t succeeded in finding volunteer leaders because as many as 50 percent of families move in or out of the neighborhood during the school year. Other families, Almdale said, work long hours at low-paying jobs to get by.
At Bemiss, Almdale asked each organization to provide staff people to run the after-school programs.
Each program, Almdale said, has activities that build self esteem, model social behavior and teach self reliance among the kids. Already the families of 50 children in the trial program are seeing results.
“My kids’ grades went up dramatically since they’ve been in the program,” said Leah Phyllis, a mother of three. “It’s because they’re over there playing games, learning and making crafts. If they weren’t there, it would be too easy for them to be home playing Nintendo.”
A couple of hours after the children go home from their clubs, Dennis Coplen comes into Bemiss.
Coplen has risen to management in his career, but one piece of unfinished business has kept him from going further. He doesn’t have a high school diploma.
Now he is one of a dozen adults who study for a GED at Bemiss on weeknights.
“This is convenient,” he said. “It’s after dinner and I can still get home to help put my kids to bed.”
The Bemiss site council identified continued education for adults as one way to improve the incomes of neighborhood residents. Some need help getting their GEDs, others need review of basic math, others need to learn to read.
Last fall Bemiss sent home fliers with school children announcing the evening classes.
Bemiss’ evening program for adults provides child care, which allows moms like Shawn Holman and Carla Parks to come consistently to the evening classes.
What’s unique at Bemiss is that the community, not the school, is setting the agenda.
For the last three years the site council - which is a model of leadership now being developed by schools across the state - has given Bemiss residents a forum to discuss the issues.
“We jumped into the site council with both feet,” said Susie Rathbone, a mom and volunteer. “We had to if we were going to make Bemiss the school we wanted it to be for our children.”
Bemiss parents identified early that the issues affecting their children’s educations didn’t begin and end at school.
They found that 80 percent of parents walk or drive their children to and from Bemiss because they are afraid older children will beat their kids up. And they began designing programs - like the after school program - that would decrease violence and increase opportunities for kids.
They began pushing for the clean up of an old junk yard behind the school. They expressed concern that too many Bemiss families didn’t have cars to drive themselves to doctors offices for check ups or they didn’t have medical coupons.
Questions asked by moms, dads and grandparents began pushing the city, the Spokane County Health Department and the police to provide some answers.
“We now have services that are making us a tighter community, we’re making the Bemiss neighborhood a place where people are their brothers’ keepers,” said Teddie Green, who’s been involved from the start three years ago.
“This is a long process, but now we have some things to build on.”
ILLUSTRATION: Two Photos, One Color