When Seattle's Concord Elementary School moved off the state's academic-watch list this summer, Pat Sander celebrated the hard work of the principal and her young teaching staff...

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When Seattle’s Concord Elementary School moved off the state’s academic-watch list this summer, Pat Sander celebrated the hard work of the principal and her young teaching staff.

In four years, with steady annual increases, the percentage of Concord’s fourth-graders meeting state standards has doubled in reading (to 47 percent) and risen sixfold in math (to 42 percent).

For Sander, a Seattle Public Schools elementary-education director who worked closely with Concord, the improvement reinforced her faith in a three-pronged reform strategy: realigning curricula to state standards; developing high-quality, targeted teaching; and shaping staff members into an effective team.

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She thinks it has worked wonders at Concord and Van Asselt elementary schools, both in the city’s South End, both with some of the city’s poorest children and many inexperienced teachers.

Sander urged her bosses to give top priority to those tried-and-true strategies in next year’s budget and in its new five-year plan. The plan will invest in teaching and learning but may come with the risk of up to 22 school closures and fewer free bus rides.

The strategies that worked at Concord are among a litany of proposed actions that, if approved by the School Board, would cost $18.5 million next year. District officials say that’s a very rough estimate, but it is generally what’s needed to meet urgent state and federal demands for raising student academic achievement.

High-school students, starting with the Class of 2008, will be required to earn a score of “proficient” on state tests in reading, writing and math to get their diplomas. And the Seattle school district, like other districts, is under growing federal pressure to close the gaps based on race and gender in test scores and graduation rates.

In response, the district, with extensive community input since last spring, developed a five-year improvement plan that it estimates will require at least $100 million, including $29 million to balance its budget, $16 million to raise teachers’ salaries and $50 million to expand the use of strategies like those that paid off at Concord. The board is set to vote on the plan Wednesday.

District finance director Steve Nielsen says no decisions have been made on how the district will pay for each of those three big needs. What’s clear, he says, is that the district faces a $9 million budget shortfall next year and will be unable to meet $10 million in obligations in 2006-07 if it doesn’t make structural changes soon. State law requires school districts to pass balanced budgets.

Nielsen says that having exhausted reserves and most grants, as well as having slashed its payroll, the district will have no easy options for covering rising labor and energy costs and replacing outdated books and deteriorating buildings. What will likely be needed is a combination of closing school buildings, limiting transportation choices and hunting for more ways to be efficient, officials say. The die may have been cast when the district signed a five-year labor pact with the Seattle Education Association in September. Under the contract, the district has guaranteed teachers it will spend at least $5 million annually starting in 2006-07 to make its pay scales more competitive with surrounding districts. The deal also gives the district unprecedented flexibility in protecting staff members at struggling schools from layoffs.

The proposed $50 million reform package would, among other things, increase the number of school-based literacy and math coaches from 10, expand teacher training in proven instructional strategies and pay for new books. (The district hasn’t adopted a new math curriculum since 1992.) It promises to devote $3 million to create a rigorous college and technical program at every high school.

The package would also establish an aggressive truancy prevention and intervention plan, continue to promote racial- and cultural-sensitivity training among staff members and support a district-level Office of Equity and Race Relations.

There would be $1 million set aside to help the weakest schools. Also high on the list are more effective leadership training, diversifying the staff and ensuring that schools have nutritious foods, clean water and fresh air.

Board member Dick Lilly said he doesn’t think the district needs to spend $50 million on such a wide variety of academic initiatives, although he does support school-based teaching coaches.

Instead, focus is what’s needed, he said. And Lilly wants to focus resources on making sure every child is reading at grade level by third grade and keeps up from there.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com