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A school worth studying

Susan Notes: Note:
They don't teach to the test. The test doesn't dictate the curriculum, nor does it hang like a sword over the school day. Van Asselt kids still get three recesses. And though it's no alternative school, there remains a major focus on in-school art, gym and especially music all programs that are being shunted aside at some schools in slavish pursuit of the three R's.


By Danny Westneat

In most of the ways that parents use to judge schools, Van Asselt Elementary in Southeast Seattle would seem a dubious place to send your kids.

Four of five students are poor enough to get free lunch. There's no parental involvement to speak of, no aggressive PTA hosting fundraising auctions. It's one of those aging urban schools that's long been abandoned by the middle class and by whites. This year, in a school of 460 kids, only one is white.

Nobody was too surprised when, five years ago, Van Asselt was put on the federal list of failing schools.

Today, there's some kind of magic happening inside.

Test scores released last week show Van Asselt now ranks in the top 20 of Seattle's 67 elementary and K-8 schools. More kids there passed all three parts of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the WASL, than at some of the city's most sought-after primary schools, such as TOPS, Stevens and John Stanford International in Wallingford.

None of those elite schools faces poverty challenges on the same scale as Van Asselt. It is one of 17 elementaries in Seattle in which at least three-fourths of the kids are poor enough to get free lunch. Test scores at these South End schools routinely are the city's lowest. The biggest exception, by far, is now Van Asselt.

I dropped in on the dilapidated South Beacon Hill school to see how in the world they do it.

"I'm not sure there's something very special going on here, but it's not something that's written," says fourth-grade teacher Edmund Wong. "I guess it's in the air."

Two things jumped out at me things that ought to be clarion calls for any school struggling to make it in this era of high-stakes standardized tests.

One, the Van Asselt staff has a brilliant, counterintuitive strategy when it comes to the WASL. Which is that they mostly ignore it.

They don't teach to the test. The test doesn't dictate the curriculum, nor does it hang like a sword over the school day. Van Asselt kids still get three recesses. And though it's no alternative school, there remains a major focus on in-school art, gym and especially music all programs that are being shunted aside at some schools in slavish pursuit of the three R's.

Wong says he doesn't do anything specifically WASL-related in his class until a few weeks before the test date. And then it's mostly advice on how to take the test.

"Class has got to be engaging and creative or they won't learn," he said. "If I teach to the test I won't even get their attention."

The second thing is truly inspiring. Five years ago the staff of Van Asselt took a leap of faith and began aiming the classroom instruction at the most gifted and talented kids.

They call it "teach to the highest." It's accompanied by a tutoring program designed to prevent anyone from falling too far behind.

"The point is, don't dummify your instruction," says Thereza Przekota, who teaches English as a second language. "It doesn't work to aim for the bottom or the middle. If you do, that's where you'll end up. If you go for the top it's amazing how an entire class can be lifted."

This is a school where 82 percent of kids are from homes where English is not the first language. Yet three-fourths of fourth-graders passed the reading WASL, and 69 percent passed writing. Sixty-three percent passed math.

All these marks are quadruple or more what the school regularly scored six to 10 years ago. The success is resonating across all major racial groups at the school Asians, blacks, and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics.

I asked Principal ElDoris Turner if there was a way to bottle up what Van Asselt has done. You know, to export it to other struggling schools. She looked skeptical.

"Every school is different. There's no magic solution," she said.

Maybe there isn't. But maybe we also make this stuff harder than it really is.

Here's one school that is tackling some of the most intractable problems in public education. Copying it seems like the least we should do.

— Danny Westneat
Seattle Times
2006-09-10


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