The remarkable turnaround at Asa Mercer Middle has School Board members paying close attention. The school's success could significantly influence policies across the district.
For years, Beacon Hill’s Asa Mercer Middle School languished as one of the worst in the city.
In 2005, just 13.8 percent of its eighth-graders passed the state science test — 20 points below the district average. Scores in math (33.1 percent passing) and reading (55.9 percent passing) weren’t much better.
With enrollment shrinking, many regarded Mercer as another example of a grim pattern seen in schools nationwide: high diversity, high poverty, low achievement.
Six years later, Mercer has shattered that pattern. It’s still diverse and poor, but test scores are skyrocketing. Mercer kids now outperform the city average on almost every measure, especially among African Americans, English Language Learners and students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.
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And as for that eighth-grade state science test? Last year, 84.3 percent passed it.
So how did this regular public school manage to turn itself around so dramatically?
The story behind Mercer’s success is neither short nor simple, administrators, teachers and parents said.
It involves a strong principal, a collaborative group of hardworking teachers and a heavy use of data to constantly tweak instruction. There have been some bold moves, such as scrapping the district’s mandated math textbook in favor of a specialized curriculum built to the same state standards.
But the school maintains its success is due mostly to a simple belief in the ability of all its students.
“It’s not glamorous,” said the current principal, Susan Toth. “It’s not a silver-bullet story or a piece of magic.”
But it is important — important enough that Seattle Public Schools is carefully studying which parts of the Mercer model can be replicated. In fact, the lessons from the Mercer story may significantly influence district policy in 2012, several School Board members said.
“Other schools need to observe Mercer. We all need to observe it,” said Betty Patu, a board member representing Southeast Seattle. “They are clearly having success, so how can we implement this at other schools?”
“We teach urgently”
Bob Ettinger stood in front of his eighth-grade science class last Wednesday at a critical point in a lesson on evolution.
He had already walked students through the basic principles of common ancestors and mutation. Now he asked them to use a list of characteristics of whales, salmon and hippos to figure out which animals are more closely related.
It seemed improbable, but the list showed whales and hippos as having the most traits in common. But when Ettinger announced those animals were the most closely related, the kids were dumbfounded.
“Oooh!” they exclaimed. “What! Why!”
The grasp that Ettinger held his students in represents part of the core Mercer teacher philosophy: Lead with energy and joy. Move quickly. Respect students and ask them to work hard to meet high expectations.
As sixth-grade language teacher Gretchen Coe said, “We teach urgently.”
To do that, the teachers rely on data. Many give a mini-test at the end of every class to zero in on parts of the lesson that need further review.
They also use data to identify struggling students early and place them into a structured intervention plan. Those students get extra instruction tailored to their needs. The focus is on core subjects, sometimes at the expense of classes such as social studies.
Most important, teachers work together. The faculty is grouped into teams that meet weekly to discuss individual students and coordinate lesson plans, and all of them gather for a full day every two months to discuss broader strategies.
That adds up to much more planning time than at most Seattle schools, said Cathy Thompson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
The use of data, aggressive intervention and collaboration are all part of a vision implemented by former principal Andhra Lutz.
Described by colleagues as a “force of nature,” Lutz arrived at Mercer in 2004 and pushed teachers to buy into the vision, which she learned during a fellowship with the KIPP charter-school network.
The style didn’t please everybody. Some teachers felt Lutz would make their life difficult if they disagreed, said Olga Addae, a former Mercer teacher who is now president of the Seattle teachers union.
Lutz denies that, but says she did seek to attract a like-minded team.
“It wasn’t about getting rid of teachers,” said Lutz, who left last year to work for KIPP in Washington, D.C. She and her administrative team “really worked in collaboration with the teachers and really thought about what they needed to be great.”
The push for success has also received outside help.
A grant from the Nesholm Family Foundation funded a literacy-coach position (which Toth held before replacing Lutz as principal), and Seattle’s Families and Education Levy supported after-school programs.
At the same time, the school initiated dozens of home visits to increase parent involvement.
The effort to engage parents was “very positive,” especially for immigrant families, said Adrienne Hidy, president of the school’s PTSA.
“The families at Mercer from the get-go are welcomed into the school and then it kind of builds upon itself,” said Hidy, whose son is in the eighth grade.
Rethinking math lessons
The most talked-about aspect of Mercer’s success is its decision to essentially form its own math curriculum.
While the district requires middle schools to use Connected Mathematics Project textbooks, Mercer decided those books were too reading-intensive for its large number of students whose native language isn’t English. So school officials decided to supplement the district model with whatever resources they thought would best help students meet state standards.
“We didn’t scrap it entirely,” said Chris Eide, who taught math at Mercer last year, noting the district books were still used when deemed valuable.
The central administration was largely unaware of Mercer’s approach, School Board member Kay Smith-Blum said.
“They did it sort of undercover,” she said. “They just did what their kids needed.”
The results were clear: The number of students passing the state math tests more than doubled, to 70.8 percent, during Lutz’s tenure.
Other scores have also spiked. And while a gap still exists between the scores achieved by white students and students of color, the difference is significantly less than it is districtwide.
The gains have not gone entirely uncontested.
Some skeptics say Mercer’s population has become less diverse in recent years and underperforming students have been pushed out through suspension and expulsion.
The numbers show scant evidence for either claim: The percentages of black and Hispanic students, as well as students on free and reduced lunches, have all increased since 2005. Suspensions and expulsions dropped 60 percent.
Many have noted state tests have gotten easier, especially in science. That is probably true — scores have risen dramatically across the state — but Mercer went from performing significantly below the district average to significantly above it.
Even Addae, the union president, acknowledged Lutz appears to have achieved her mission of transforming Mercer into a high-poverty yet high-performing school.
While Mercer’s turnaround is still in progress, the striking success it has already achieved is leading to changes around the district.
Next month, fellow Southeast Seattle middle school Aki Kurose is planning to implement Mercer’s aggressive-intervention model, said Michael Tolley, the executive director overseeing both schools.
“Every school is different in terms of the needs of the students,” he said. “But there are specific strategies that can be replicated.”
Meanwhile, a School Board committee is working to adopt policies that would give schools more flexibility in curriculum and instruction.
And some officials are thinking bigger still.
Board Vice President Michael DeBell said Mercer is likely to prompt district leaders to rethink their emphasis on a standardized curriculum across the city.
“I think Mercer is a case study for the idea that what is adopted at the district level may not always work for all children and we have to give our schools the opportunity to find out what does work and apply it,” DeBell said. “It proves that every school can be a successful school if given the right tools.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org