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For six years, Sili Savusa dreaded the end of August, specifically the date when school-testing results arrive online from Olympia. Clicking on the ratings for White Center Heights Elementary, the former school-board member felt her usual sense of doom.

The building, opened with huge community fanfare nine years ago, routinely logged some of the worst scores in the region.

But this time, Savusa’s heart leapt.

Every grade saw a spike in test results — most rising by double-digits. And while hundreds of students there still struggle, White Center Heights showed some of the biggest gains for math and reading in the entire state.

“I almost wanted to cry,” said Savusa. “I was like, ‘finally!’ ”

Conventional wisdom holds that substantive change in public education moves at a glacial pace, and no one at White Center Heights is declaring victory yet. But after failing to gain traction for years, teachers there achieved something that eludes educators across the country: They jump-started a turnaround, and they did it in nine months.

What is perhaps most notable is that they achieved this without a staff overhaul, influx of funds or by shunting weaker students off to other buildings. Instead, they focused on something that gets little attention in school-reform debates: improved instruction.

The results have attracted attention. Only 3 percent of Washington’s 1,139 elementary schools saw passage-rate increases across their third, fourth and fifth grades last spring, and among them, most results at White Center Heights were so off-the-charts that district leaders worried briefly about cheating.

Fourth-grade math, for example, shot up by 30 percentage points.

But Alan Spicciati, chief accountability officer for the Highline School District, is satisfied that the results are legitimate. “This wasn’t a case where the scores go up and you kind of scratch you head, wondering how or why,” he said.

The reasons were clear:

A new emphasis on instruction affected everything in the building: One of three daily recess periods was cut to allow for more instructional time, and arrival even a minute past 9 a.m. required an explanation from a parent.

Instead of drilling students with exercises and work sheets, reading teachers began challenging them to reflect on the meaning of stories and nonfiction, rather than simply decoding words.

And in math, students were divided into groups based on performance — a once-common but now controversial practice — with strugglers intensively targeted for extra help.

The price tag for these adjustments was nominal — about $75,000 for materials and after-school teacher pay. Their primary driver was a blunt-spoken new principal who reels off education research as easily as making a grocery list and has a my-way-or-the-highway approach to change.

White Center Heights educates some of the poorest students in the region. More than 88 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent speak a language other than English with their parents.

When Anne Reece took the helm in 2012, two-thirds of her third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders could not read at grade level.

“The potential of these kids was way higher than the data showed — I could see that immediately,” she said. “But our teachers had lost so much hope that they weren’t even focusing on academics anymore. These were smart, capable people, but they’d lost faith in their ability to teach.”

Highline Superintendent Susan Enfield gave her new principal carte blanche, and Reece ran with it, observing classrooms, patrolling the playground. She paid teachers to read instructional theory on their own time, assigning them to meet in book groups and discuss their findings.

On the job only six days, she led her staff through a brutal assessment of test results, marching them through an hour of education theory and then examining, classroom by classroom, what had worked — or hadn’t.

“I kind of blasted them out of the water, I’ll admit,” she said. “But come on — we had third-graders who couldn’t even do first-grade math.”

Diagnosing students’ skill deficits through testing data was new to her teachers, Reece discovered. She urged them to drill down, study the results and realize that OK scores in reading comprehension, for example, didn’t necessarily mean students knew how to think critically. Being well-liked was not on her agenda.

Yet after that introductory meeting, teachers applauded. Later, one sent a note: “Enjoyed the take-charge stance,” it said. “Stay strong.”

Reading in small groups

It had been years since White Center Heights saw leadership like this. Since 2006, the school has cycled through four principals.

Reece, the fifth, arrived last fall with a doctorate in literacy education, a background working with high-needs students and an explicit mandate from her boss: Improve academic performance immediately.

“Poverty is not a learning disability,” Enfield said.

It may, however, call for fresh approaches in the classroom.

Previously, reading instruction had been based on decoding, with first- and second-graders drilled on how quickly they could sound out words — regardless of whether they understood the meaning.

Third-graders might listen to a story and then fill out a work sheet about it.

But now the 8-year-olds in Ryan Reilly’s class are reading “The Little Prince” and perusing articles about traumatized elephants — material designed to build vocabulary and comprehension simultaneously.

At 10:05 a.m., on a recent Tuesday, they gathered in a circle on the floor, and Reilly, discussing an article called “Secrets of a Sunken City,” wrote several words on the board — ancient, artifacts, archaeology.

He spoke to his students about the importance of asking themselves questions as they read: “How long had the Egyptian treasure been under water? How did it sink? What were the archaeologists going to do with it?”

The students then paired off to discuss these questions with one another, using the text as evidence for their answers. Reilly moved from cluster to cluster, helping weaker students decode words, challenging others to speculate on more complex issues.

“This is where the real teaching happens,” he said. “You can’t teach 24 kids at once. The small groups, that’s where it all goes down.”

The new, small-group approach relies on “elaborated talk” — sometimes called accountable talk — which pushes students to speak their thoughts aloud.

The practice has been widely recognized as improving English-language skills among nonnative speakers, but Reece thinks it works with all kids, in all subjects, even math.

“If you go into fourth grade believing that one-sixth is bigger than one-fifth — a very typical misconception — anything you try to build on is going to go nowhere because you’ve missed one of the fundamental concepts,” she said, recalling a third-grader who’d struggled with exactly that.

“At no point had a teacher interrupted him so no one ever realized that’s what he thought. We have to be able not only to teach understanding, but to interrupt misunderstandings.”

Elaborated talk builds on well-known research by Betty Hart and Todd Risleythat links success in elementary school to the number of words heard as toddlers, and it is key to Reece’s belief about how children learn.

“I fundamentally believe that language is knowledge,” she said. “So if you’re not building language, how can you think?”

After a year of the new teaching methods, reading scores at White Center Heights shot up: In 2012, only 33 percent of the school’s third-graders could read at grade level. The next year, as fourth-graders, nearly 58 percent of the class had met that mark.

Because early reading is crucial to future academic success, the numbers were of particular note both to district officials and to families, who marveled about White Center’s scores across the neighborhood.

“I even heard about it from my customers at the bank,” said Judy Jagolino, a teller, whose daughter Julien Briana is a second-grader at the school.

Math approach

Guided reading, as the practice is known, was a relatively easy sell. But Reece’s approach to math has raised persistent questions.

Traditionally, arithmetic at White Center Heights had been geared toward the lowest-level kids. Teachers slowed class for strugglers, resigning themselves to the likelihood that they would never complete a year’s curriculum by June. One confided that she dreaded looking at annual test results — the numbers left her wanting to weep.

“We’d lost so much ground; we were just flailing,” said Sally Wilma, a sixth-grade teacher at the school for more than two decades.

Within a single classroom one child might be able to multiply three-digit decimals, while another had trouble comprehending the basic concept behind fractions.

Reece directed White Center’s staff to divide each grade’s students into groups based on skill levels, a practice known as tracking, or ability-grouping, that was standard in the 1970s and ’80s, but has since been demonized by social-justice groups like the ACLU and NAACP.

Opponents say it lowers expectations for high-needs students, keeping them from ever advancing to higher-level content, and has negligible impact on performance. In 2004, the National Research Council stated unequivocally that “low-track classes should be eliminated.”

Yet under the radar, many schools use modified ability-grouping with success. At Gildo Rey Elementary in Auburn, which employs a similar model, math scores among its high-poverty population have remained up around the 90th percentile for years.

Nevertheless, many educators at White Center Heights express discomfort with the notion of categorizing kids. And their concerns echo widely.

Kevin Welner, who runs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, has seen low-track elementary students assigned to color pictures, rather than grapple with actual concepts.

“I’ve been in some classrooms where I want to bang my head against the wall and cry,” he said.

Even Highline’s director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math raised concerns, summoning Reece to a meeting and, as the principal recalls it, suggesting that her methods were inappropriate.

But the new principal had a theory: Scores at White Center Heights were being held down precisely because teachers aimed at their lowest-level learners. Separating the kids who struggled into small groups — sometimes only eight to a teacher — and exposing them to the same concepts in simplified form might bring their skills up to par, enabling them to rejoin the rest.

Where the larger class might tackle multiplying decimal figures in the hundredths, for example, the slower group would learn the same lesson using tenths.

Success in this model required teachers to constantly re-evaluate their students, moving them between ability groups and fine-tuning lessons weekly.

“This was different and it was radical,” Reece acknowledged. “But we were desperate. I’m not an advocate of tracking — good god, my worst nightmare. Our student needs basically drove us to it.”

Her hunch paid off. After one year of flexible ability-grouping, skill gaps narrowed enough that the third grade has been able to abandon low-track math. And a Seattle Times analysis of the 2013 test scores found that fourth-graders did 20 points better than statistical models predicted.

“Tracking has always been controversial because you’re separating kids and you’re labeling them,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (and former sixth-grade teacher) who studies education.

“But running a school’s hard enough as it is, and we need to use all the tools that are available. If something is working, keep doing it.”

“Practices that anyone can do”

The changes at White Center Heights did not cost lots of money or depend on firing teachers. They came, primarily, from new instructional ideas and a staff willing to carry them out.

“These are practices that anyone can do,” said Enfield, the district superintendent. “It’s not about some whiz-bang new curriculum.”

Outside experts are reluctant to declare the school a turnaround success without years of evidence, but the trajectory at White Center Heights already shares much with other schools that have made lasting headway.

“Typically, these places dive deep into data. It’s a hallmark of high-performing, high-poverty schools,” said Sarah Yatsko, a research analyst who studies school transformation at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at UW Bothell.

“Almost always, there is this willingness to experiment. Most school districts aren’t really set up for that — you have to fight for every little change. But when it happens, it can make a huge difference.”

Beginning her second year at the helm, Reece has kept the pressure on. Her master schedule resembles a Rubik’s Cube of interconnected color blocks, with each staffer’s hours and location calibrated down to the minute.

“I am definitely getting up earlier and preparing more,” said Wilma, the sixth-grade teacher. “To make this work, you have to think much more carefully about what you want children to do, but that’s all to the good. Years ago, I think we did leave a lot of kids behind. Now we’re accountable for that.”

A focus on scores is itself controversial. But in the current climate, such ratings can determine who gets on track for college and who does not.

“The reality is, we can be kind to them, we can love them. It doesn’t break the cycle of poverty,” said Reece at this year’s kickoff meeting with teachers. “Education is the only way, and it’s a numbers game.”

Lasting progress at White Center Heights will depend in part on how readily the wider community buys into that concept. Several teachers believe the focus on test performance has come at the expense of subjects like art and social studies.

Savusa, the former school-board member who now runs a local nonprofit, considers Reece highhanded, particularly toward those not well-versed in education theory.

And Nancy Hallberg, school librarian for the past eight years, is openly skeptical about pointing to numbers alone as proof of success.

Yet she cannot deny the new reality of fourth-graders circling her desk, clamoring for books.

“I’ve never seen that in all my years here,” Hallberg said. “It was so amazing that I stood up in a staff meeting and told the teachers: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but this is amazing progress. The kids are reading, and they’re reading at grade level.’ It was just a miracle.”

Claudia Rowe: or 206-464-2531

Data analysis provided by data innovation editor Cheryl Phillips