Parents and neighbors of Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood, long considered among the lowest-performing in the state, are trying to turn the school around by donating their money, time and ideas.

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It’s Saturday night and parents are streaming into a decked-out Seattle museum, elegantly dressed and eager to bid on concert tickets, student artwork and dozens of other donated items.

But the school on the receiving end of this classic PTA fundraising auction is not located in Queen Anne or Madison Park.

It’s the Columbia City neighborhood’s Hawthorne Elementary, one of the poorest, most diverse and historically low-performing schools in Seattle.

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The auction, held late last month at the Northwest African American Museum, raised about $40,000.

But attendees said it represented something bigger — that Hawthorne is undergoing a revitalization, thanks in part to a growing group of parents who are increasingly donating money, time and ideas.

The parent engagement is being driven in part by a high-profile federal grant that’s pumping $1.5 million into the school over a three-year period. But mostly, parents say, it’s powered by a community’s decision to embrace a school.

“It’s our neighborhood school,” said Linnea Fichter, who serves as the school’s PTA treasurer even though her 2-year-old son is still years away from attending. “It’s a school for our community.”

It’s not at all clear if the increased involvement will translate to higher student achievement. The school’s average scores on state tests roughly doubled last year, but the scores were still far below average, and there’s no guarantee the increase can be maintained.

Still, officials say the Hawthorne story is an encouraging one for a district that recently moved to a neighborhood-based student-assignment plan on the hope that parents would embrace the school closest to them.

“What I always tell parents is that, when you don’t see academics going up (at your local school), instead of leaving you can stay and make a difference,” said Betty Patu, who represents Southeast Seattle on the School Board.

“Parents can say, ‘Why do I have to leave? My school can become a great school.’ “

Making a difference

At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, 18.4 percent of Hawthorne third-graders passed the state reading test, and 23.7 percent passed the state math test.

The next fall, new principal Sandra Scott arrived determined to turn things around. And in January, she caught a break when the low test scores, along with other factors, qualified Hawthorne to apply for a lucrative federal School Improvement Grant.

Scott, an easygoing and open leader, formed a team of teachers and parents to write the grant application. The plan they came up with included a focus on the arts, extra class time and two staff positions dedicated at least partially to parent engagement.

The grant-funded positions, a family-engagement specialist and business manager, joined two family-support workers already at the school. Those workers, funded through the city’s Families and Education Levy, work to make sure families have basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing.

“We’re basically running a food bank out of our school,” said parent Andrew Roe, standing in the school’s Family Center, a well-stocked pantry on the second floor, on a recent school day.

Roe and a handful of other parents joined the effort as the grant funding kicked in. Inspired by Scott and the districtwide move toward neighborhood schools, the group restructured the PTA with a goal of becoming partners with the school administration.

At first glance, the parents’ biggest contribution appears to be raising more money — thousands of extra dollars that go toward buying art supplies and laptops for classroom use, among other items.

Much of the money comes from the new auction. The parents know that the now-annual event will never raise as much as similar events at schools in wealthy neighborhoods but say it helps galvanize the community.

That’s also the goal of a dozen or so other events they’ve held this year, from literacy night and math nights to African-American parent involvement and community-service days.

With more families involved, the group also has encouraged parents to help out in classrooms.

That has made a bigger difference than the fundraising, said Tami Gianacos, a resource-room teacher. “Whenever there are more adults in the classroom, it helps the students focus,” said Gianacos, who noted that many of Hawthorne’s immigrant students come from cultures where parent involvement in school is rare.

Gianacos and other teachers pointed to several other factors propelling improvement at Hawthorne, from a revamped reading-intervention program to a more collaborative staff that is emphasizing coordinated lesson planning.

What’s changed the most has been the culture, said Lindsay Crawford, a Hawthorne parent whose son has been at the school for five years.

“My son loves going to school now,” Crawford said.

Long way to go

But while Hawthorne’s test scores have risen, they are still low.

They are so low, in fact, that a December report by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction found that the school’s three-year average test-passage rate ranked among the bottom 5 percent in the state.

The ranking mostly reflected just how bad things used to be, but it served as a reminder to the Hawthorne parents of the school’s reputation as a low-performing school — a characterization parents reject.

“We’re not a failing school. We’re a fighting school,” said Graham Ayers, an involved parent of a Hawthorne kindergartner. “And we like being a fighting school.”

Ayers and others disputed the notion that test scores should be the only way to measure a school, especially at places with large numbers of students who must deal with challenging family situations.

Some aspects of education, like student enthusiasm and appreciation of the arts, can’t be measured but are still important, said Tre’ Maxie, executive director of Powerful Schools, a nonprofit education group that works with several schools, including Hawthorne.

Still, everybody at Hawthorne acknowledges they still have a lot of work to do.

“It’s a long-term battle,” Ayers said. “We have a long way to go.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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