Mia Williams started at Aki Kurose Middle School in Rainier Valley in 2008. Since then, test scores have significantly improved.

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A quick glance at the test scores at Aki Kurose Middle School might suggest many students aren’t on grade level. Two years ago, about three-fourths of sixth-grade students at the Rainier Valley school passed the state reading test, and two-thirds passed math.

But look closer, says Principal Mia Williams, who was recently named Washington middle school principal of the year. Consider that in 2008, the year she started at Aki Kurose, about three-fifths of the sixth-grade students were proficient in reading. And less than a third passed in math.

Since Williams arrived, Aki Kurose has consistently had one of the highest growth rates in the district.

“That is the story that doesn’t get told,” she said. “I am most proud of that.”

The 2016 Washington State Middle Level Principal of the Year award, given by the Association of Washington School Principals, recognizes middle-level principals who provide great learning to students and exceptional contributions to their profession.

“I am excited for the school community as a whole, because, as I tell everybody, you can’t get anywhere without everybody playing a role,” Williams said. “I wanted to represent the heavy lifting of the students, families and staff who have really wrapped their arms around the school.”

Williams served as assistant principal at Salmon Bay K-8 and Denny International Middle schools before coming to Aki Kurose in 2008.  At the time, the school had about 420 students. There were low test scores and high absence rates.

Now, there are more than 700 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, who Williams affectionately calls her “babies.” Test scores are up and the unexcused absence rate has been cut in half. Every student gets curriculum for their grade level, but those who are behind take extra classes to help them catch up. Under Williams’ leadership, the school also added more arts classes.

As an example of students’ academic growth, Williams recalled one sixth-grader who started the year reading at a third-grade level. By the end of the year, the student was reading at the fifth-grade level.

“That isn’t proficient, but it’s two years of growth in one year,” she said.

For her work on reducing chronic absenteeism, Williams was invited to the White House in December to participate on a panel for the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The initiative was launched by President Obama to address opportunity gaps that affect boys of color, and its programs have been successful at Aki Kurose, according to Williams.

“We want to emphasize the positive side, because they are doing some amazing things, because they are brilliant,” Williams said. “Just like all my babies.”