You could call it the “Northgate miracle.” Except that would make it seem like it was due to providence or sheer luck.

Educators and lawmakers alike have been searching for some sort of response to the wrecking ball that the pandemic took to the public schools. One just might be here, in one of Seattle’s higher poverty schools, Northgate Elementary.

It’s been well-documented that traditional learning cratered during the pandemic, erasing decades of progress on reading and math. Test scores dropped nationally to the lowest levels since the late 1990s.

In Washington state, the plunge was severe, especially in math. Just 30% of kids passed in math in 2021. That was a historic drop of 20 points, meaning that hundreds of thousands of kids had fallen far behind.

At Northgate, where two-thirds of the students are low income, the declines were even worse. In 2021 only 23% passed the math tests.

But that was then. Schoolwide, the number of kids meeting math standards just jumped 20 points. For the fifth grade, they leapt an incredible 32%. That meant Northgate’s fifth graders not only recouped all the pandemic learning loss, but scored higher than before — a full 23 points above the statewide math average.


Northgate’s fifth graders improved in math more than all but one of the 1,100 fifth grade classes in the state, rich or poor. (Tiny Selkirk Elementary in Metaline Falls, out in Pend Oreille County, had the biggest leap.)

So what is going on at Northgate?

No one can be entirely sure, as it hasn’t been formally studied. But an after-school tutoring program, begun last year, probably had something to do with it.

I wrote about this effort in March, after spending an afternoon there. A guy who got a Ph.D. in applied physics at Stanford, and who also was the first in his family to go to college, started it to try to bridge the math achievement gap.

“Inside a Seattle data guy’s ambitious attempt to tackle education’s biggest problem,” was the headline on that story.

The problem has plagued education forever: Kids in poverty tend to start school behind, then fall further off the pace. By the time they reach middle school, they can be academically sunk.

“It’s the key to everything — to wealth inequality, to better futures for the poor and middle class,” Mike Preiner said in that story.


His premise, called The Math Agency, is to use intensive tutoring sessions to catch them up. Some kids are so far behind this means ambitiously recovering as much as two to three grade levels in math learning just during the elementary school years.

Last year he worked with about 40 of the 60 fourth and fifth graders at Northgate, during an after-school program run by Seattle Parks. Most of the tutors were University of Washington education or math students.

What’s different about the program is that Preiner relentlessly tracks everything using digital tools, down to the number of minutes each student practices.

His data showed the kids came in learning math at about 0.7 grade levels per year. (You need at least 1.0 to keep pace with your grade.) During the tutoring program, this doubled to 1.4 grade levels, meaning the kids were catching up (though arguably still not fast enough).

The just released state test data from last spring was the program’s first reality check. And Northgate’s fourth grade scores jumped from a lowly 16% of students meeting math standard, to 44% — a 28 percentage point rise. The fifth grade scores vaulted from 29% to 61%.

These aren’t normal score shifts, even for a relatively small school. The 61% math score was the best any class at Northgate has done on this state standardized test since it was introduced in 2015. It was also the highest score for any fifth grade class among the state’s hundreds of high-poverty schools (defined here as more than 60% of students coming from low-income homes).


Is it a coincidence, or a pandemic boomerang? Preiner is quick to say it may not be the after-school tutoring; it could be something that’s going on in the school’s classrooms, or, most likely, some combination. The fifth graders’ reading scores also spiked.

“We’re just super-excited about it, however it happened,” he said. “It means Northgate is now one of the top performing schools in its demographic group.”

Those fifth graders have moved on to middle school. I don’t want to get too dramatic, as this was one test, for one group of 31 kids, at one moment in time. But being caught up, after being so far behind, can be life-changing.

The Math Agency is back at Northgate this year, with double the number of tutors.

“A 60% pass rate is good relative to its income status,” Preiner says. “But the real challenge is, can we get Northgate performing as if it were a school with no poverty? What if it can match what the wealthiest schools are doing?”

I love this, every part of it. What I don’t understand is: Why aren’t we doing high-dosage tutoring at every school? You know the rich kids are getting help when they fall behind.


Some states used their pandemic relief money to start tutoring programs like this — Tennessee’s new ALL Corps literacy and math tutoring, operating in 79 school districts, being one example.

“A lot of this pandemic recovery money was supposed to go to tutoring,” Preiner says, “but I haven’t seen that much of it happening here.”

So a huge congratulations is due to Northgate. You’ve got the pandemic on the run. And I’m sorry if I’ve made it sound like the job is done — or that what’s been accomplished so far was simple or easy.

But the real miracle here? It’s that it’s right there, within our grasp. It isn’t a miracle at all.