Principal Mike Crabtree walks a hallway at Stevens Elementary School, past the “School of Distinction” banner.
Past the display case showing how students work together to resolve conflicts.
Past classrooms where students struggling with reading or math are getting help from federally funded coaches.
Past the cafeteria where, at midday, about 92 percent of the 500 students will get lunches that are free or heavily subsidized – more than at any other school in Spokane and all but a handful of schools in the state.
The walk is interrupted by an excited student – a kid whose family, odds are, moved inside the Stevens school boundaries during the school year or will leave it sometime next year. Odds are, this kid was involved in a disciplinary issue during the school year.
“Mr. Crabtree, look! I got an A-plus.”
The boy reads aloud his teacher’s comments on the math test: “Wow! Fantastic!”
These are the challenges and the joys of being an educator in the neighborhoods along Spokane’s waistband. So many children face so many learning hurdles that as a group, they lag behind those at more affluent schools to the north and south.
Yet, the gap is narrowing. State officials say Spokane Public Schools is ahead of most districts at meeting the needs of kids who live in poverty and often must contend with other traumatizing factors. Those kids may be immigrants just learning to speak English, have a loved one in prison, come from families that move often to find cheaper rent or live in shelters.
“They have a systematic approach to learning in their district” that others are still trying to achieve, said Larry Fazzari, the state supervisor for two programs dealing with schools that serve poor populations – the state’s Learning Assistance Program and the federal Title I program.
As part of his job at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Fazzari helps screen nominations for state awards given to Title I schools. In the last several years, Spokane has received more than its share. That includes eight of 38 Academic Achievement Awards given in the past five years to Title I schools that steadily improve test scores in mathematics, reading – or both – for three consecutive years, among other requirements. In addition, four elementaries and Shaw Middle School have been named Schools of Distinction, for which Stevens and some others have been awarded honorable mention.
Spokane schools “take the initiative to honor their buildings,” Fazzari said. “For these schools that have such high poverty and work so hard, it boosts self-esteem.”
Some years, there are only one dozen or two dozen nominations for the Academic Achievement awards, said Fazzari. “But even in the years when we’ve been lean, the schools we pick have always, always been excellent.”
Throwing up the flag
Schools in poor neighborhoods tend to get a lot of help from volunteers.
Once a week, Stevens kids can catch an after-school bus to nearby Gonzaga University, where students help them with homework. Simply exposing low-income kids to a college campus pays dividends, Crabtree said.
Whitworth University sends volunteers and interns to Stevens, and the university hangs artwork created by Stevens students in its gallery – even buying some for permanent display.
Gonzaga Prep students volunteer in Holmes classrooms, and Avista encourages its employees to drop by at lunchtime to serve as mentors.
It all helps and is all appreciated, said Crabtree. But some problems faced by Stevens kids are too big for volunteers.
Such was the case when kids returned from spring break. Counselors heard from several distressed students who during the past week had someone close to them placed behind bars.
“It makes it hard to go back to class to learn,” said Laurie Curran, a counselor at Stevens. “All that pain and heartache and worry.”
Debbie Portner, a literacy coach at Stevens, worked nine years at Bemiss Elementary. She’s seen a big difference between the two Title I schools.
“There are a lot more (Stevens) kids who are traumatized and either shut down or act out because of their situation,” she said.
Crabtree said that during a typical school year he deals with about 1,000 disciplinary issues – many times more than he would expect from a more stable population.
Those incidents represent kids “throwing up the flag 1,000 times, saying I’m in need, I’m in need,” he said.
About 50 Stevens students are from families that are homeless, mostly living in shelters. And about half the students are considered “mobile,” meaning they switched elementary schools at least once since school started in September.
“If a child is moved two or three or four times in a school year, that child is going to be below the (achievement) line,” Crabtree said.
Red and yellow, green and blue
Dealing with mobile kids means assuring that when they switch schools, they don’t miss out on classwork. Yet many districts have no such system in place, leaving it up to individual teachers to assure that they cover a year’s curriculum within a year’s time.
In Spokane Public Schools, every class at every grade level is studying the same thing at about the same time. It’s based on a “time-bound curriculum” guide that’s been in place about three years and is constantly being fine-tuned.
Schools keep meticulous data based on weekly meetings at which teachers discuss each student’s academic progress and on the results of assessment tests given every four weeks for reading and writing, every six weeks for math.
Every school has a tracking system that shows at a glance how each student is doing in every subject.
At Stevens, the kids are represented by note cards that are red (struggling), yellow, green and blue (excelling), based on assessments at the beginning of the year. A red card in the yellow column shows that a student has made progress. A yellow card in the red column shows the student is slipping.
It takes extra money to pay certified staff to make it work, and for Title I schools that money comes from the federal No Child Left Behind act. Stevens, for instance, gets about $350,000 a year that it wouldn’t otherwise receive. Among other things, that money pays for two key programs:
“”Reading-recovery” teachers, who work with first-graders who haven’t yet learned to read and second-graders who are struggling. Each of those kids is pulled out of class for a half hour every day for one-on-one tutoring, for as long as they need it.
“In 12 weeks, you would not believe what they can accomplish,” said Crabtree.
“Instructional reading and math coaches, who go into classrooms to help kids who are struggling.
The goal, said Shaw Middle School Principal Chris Lynch, is for kids in Title I schools to be achieving on the same level as those in more affluent neighborhoods.
Among Spokane middle schools, Shaw serves the poorest population, including most kids who finish sixth grade at Stevens. Her students are “getting close” to matching the test scores of those at the five other middle schools, and Shaw is “a shining star” among Title I middle schools statewide, Lynch said.
Lynch, who has spent much of her career working with Title I schools in the district, knows a little something about schools that serve poor populations and has firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by their students, and the goals they can eventually achieve.
She’s a Shaw graduate.