By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Peter Weiss told HPAC’s May meeting that he wanted to organize a 5K to bring the PTA and the school not just money but awareness. HPES, he explained, is the lowest-performing elementary school in the entire district.
That was jaw-dropping news to many, if not most, in the room. Just supporting an event would not be enough. A community conversation was called for.
The conversation began in earnest this past Tuesday night.
Though most community groups skip midsummer meetings, HPAC and the HPE PTA set a date, issued an invite – and the room was full.
We counted more than 50 people.
At the front of the room, along with Sol Mendez from the HPE PTA and HPAC co-chairs Carolyn and Billy Stauffer, were school and city leaders – among the former, new HPE principal Chris Cronas and the district’s regional executive director of schools Israel Vela; among the latter, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen.
More questions than answers emerged. But it was one of those events where the event itself was the triumph, for starters, rather than any single declaration or promise made.
“One of the bigger ideas we’re trying to push here is community involvement in the schools,” in addition to and beyond the PTA and others with direct links, Billy Stauffer explained toward the start. “We’re curious to see the ways the broader community can come together … to help a failing school.”
“We want a lot of people who care from different corners of our neighborhood to come together and have a voice,” added Carolyn Stauffer. The school and its students and staff have multiple challenges to conquer. Academically, for example, only 33 percent of third graders are proficient test-wise, compared to 79 percent district-wide, and there is high teacher turnover because of a contract they were required to sign. She also mentioned high bullying rates. “They need more help.”
New HPES PTA president Mendez asked participants to avoid using polarizing language – not us vs. them, “what happens to one kid happens to all kids … we should all be cohesive and collaborative in taking care of all our children.”
“It’s going to take a community to be able to partner together to go where we want to go,” echoed Israel Vela, who is executive director of schools in this area for the district, which means, among other things, that West Seattle/South Park schools’ principals report to him. Vela recapped how Highland Park (see its official “report” here) got to be “an intervention school” and what kind of plan exists for elevating it out of that designation. Explaining what “intervention school” means, Vela mentioned that the state applied for a No Child Left Behind waiver to get to implement its own way of evaluating schools’ status – replacing the “AYP (Step 1-5)” status, there is a Segmentation 1-5 designation, with 1 meaning lowest performing. In 2009, 18 schools were in that category; by 2013, only four qualified, “which tells us that as a district … we are moving in the right direction in terms of improvement,” Vela said. HPE is not alone in Segment 1, he added. For the coming school year, it’s one of two district-wide (along with Emerson) designated as an “intervention school.”
Vela described the “re-commitment letter” that was circulated among staffers, and said that it wasn’t meant to come off as a “commitment letter.” It allowed teachers to be “displaced,” and 12 teachers at HPES “decided to displace,” he said, so hiring has been under way since June to fill the positions they vacated. A few teachers were in the room, Vela noted at that point. He added that substitutes are a role that they have trouble filling, for the southwest and southeast regions, not just this school.
Then new principal Chris Cronas introduced himself, coming from Wedgwood Elementary, “an incredibly successful school” but not always that way, he said, because of an “unhealthy climate” that he worked on, with changes that “weren’t popular with all families,” he said. 98 percent of its fourth-graders according to preliminary data he said, have met standards in writing, which he called “unprecedented.” Cronas also mentioned that he has been dealing with family challenges – not just the challenges of raising two kids under 3, but also his wife being seriously ill.
Back to his new school: He said Highland Park has a few positions left to hire. Safety/security changes, he said, will be made right away, as a result of what he described as “what’s working/not working” conversations he’s had with key people. “We have a plan for that, and it starts day one,” he said. Those changes will include how kids line up, how they move throughout the building, avoiding shoving 400 kids through two doors, language regarding behavior, teaching kids about boundaries. “This is not going to happen overnight – this is going to take time,” Cronas stressed. “The first month is going to be a little bumpy,” but once routines and procedures are set, that “bumpiness” will ease,” he said.
He went through some of the assignments, who will handle “support outside the classroom.” That includes the return of CityYear, he said, whose members will be “painting the numbers” on the classroom to help movement, among other tasks.
At that point, Carmela Dellino stood up toward the back of the room – you might recall, she preceded Vela as this area’s executive director of schools, after serving as Roxhill Elementary principal, and now works with the city’s Families and Education Levy, as “think partners” with schools like HPES that receive levy money. Last year was the first year of that funding, Vela pointed out.
One attendee, identifying herself as a teacher who has taught at HPES, wanted to know what specifics are planned to meet the social/emotional needs of students.
Cronas said some staffers underwent training known as RULER this summer. A teacher explained, at another attendee’s request, that it’s a “social/emotional curriculum to create a conversation … about feelings, and being able to express themselves openly, and de-escalate.” It creates a space “in a council environment” to discuss those feelings, the teacher said. It includes languaging that will be universal throughout the school, and ways for families to understand the language so they know what their kid(s) are talking about.
Vela said 10 schools in the district are “embarking on RULER.” It takes trust, communication, and time, said the teacher, “and you guys should be aware of that.” An attendee said they were concerned that it would just be “we sent the teachers to this training” and not an integrated part of the full school day.
The HPE PTA leader Mendez said she wanted to be sure there weren’t just “popcorn” conversations. After that, a question bounced back to history rather than future. An attendee said, “My concern with our neighborhood school … though my child doesn’t go there …” she pointed out that only 56 percent of the population in the boundaries go to that school. I want to know, why are our families not choosing to go to the neighborhood school?”
Shortly thereafter, someone else pointed out that while HPES has an ethnically diverse population – as shown on the school report – she looked around the room at the meeting and saw mostly white faces, so, how would the school engage families of color too?
Vela suggested ELL (English-language learner) parents weren’t there because of lack of district outreach: “We need to bring them to the table.” Cronas vowed that, “My intent is to reach out to specific families and subgroups.”
That outreach also needs to include referrals for services at the school when needed, said another person identifying herself as a therapist at HPE and a community resident who has seen primarily English- or Spanish-speaking families, though that’s just part of the school’s population.
Yet another attendee said RULER isn’t known for excellence in the race/equity area, so, she suggested, complicated race and cultural-compentency training would be needed.
One person said RULER is not great with race and equity, so there’s going to have to be race and cultural competency training. It’s complicated work, she pointed out.
Another touchy topic erupted at that point – the school’s EBD (emotional/behavior disorder) population. One former HPE teacher now at another school suggested that it doesn’t belong at the school, “because a lot of the kids already come from very fragile homes.” She also recalled that the school had tried a variety of outreach and programs, from home visits to positive discipline to Love and Logic, cultural competency and “courageous conversations,” but leadership challenges, she suggested, kept them from succeeding.
Another attendee shortly thereafter suggested that chlidren be taught that diversity – not just ethnic diversity – is a blessing, in all its forms.
David, saying he had a kindergartener there last year spoke next. “I’m clearly a middle-aged white guy… but we live 2 blocks from the school … friends, community ..so we’re there. … Maybe it’s leadership, maybe it’s test scores, maybe it’s state not funding schools … there’s something going on … continuity matters.” While he expressed optimism for the new HPE leadership, he stressed, “to really move forward, we need to know WHAT HAPPENED? and who could have done something about it?”
Principal Cronas then said that it won’t be just a matter, for example, of his leadership, or any small group of people in charge. At his former school, for example, things went well even while he was out last year on leave because of his wife’s illness. “Heroes don’t exist … it takes a community, it takes strong leadership, and I hope I am the right guy for this, because I choose to do this, I was asked to do it, and I said yes … can I [alone] sustain it? Nope, but I can do everything I can to make sure the pieces are in place so that it becomes sustainable.”
Conversation turned back to the EBD program, with a question about how HPE became a regional program host for it – why doesn’t the school have other major programs too, such as STEM or Spectrum?
Vela said he was too new to the district to have been present for such decisions “but I can find out.”
The program is just somewhat draining for school leadership to deal with and still meet other students’ needs, suggested Jim, a 20-year resident with four kids who says his family “chose Highland Park when it wasn’t popular to,” since they live a block away and saw value in attending the nearest school. Over the span of 2002-2012, he said, someone in his family was an HPE student. He also offered advice for school and community leaders: “What brings families together is events, not meetings.”
Standing up from the audience next was Jonathan Knapp, president of the citywide teachers’ union, the Seattle Education Association, saying he was there because he lives in Highland Park too. He spoke of the value of collaborating with staff and community, and the importance of funding. HPE got funding, “but the collaboration around that wasn’t there … money alone doesn’t make that happen,” he warned, even though, he added, our state’s School Improvement Grant recipients make more gains than recipients elsewhere in the country. And Knapp added a pitch for state Initiative 1351 (still in signature-gathering mode), aiming at lowering class sizes.
“What as a community can we do to be more involved?” asked an HPAC leader, Nicole Mazza. The group has visited the school for volunteer reading, but, she said, she could envision more, since, for example, she does STEM-education volunteering through Boeing but has never seen an opportunity to do that in her own neighborhood.
“That’s because there’s no system to make it happen,” Cronas said. He’s been talking to other principals, to figure out how to set one up, he said. Before the meeting ended, he also warned that test scores will look worse before they look better, because of the nationwide shift to new types of tests related to the Common Core. He said the first states to roll it out, including Kentucky and New York, “saw 30- to 40-point drops in test scores the first year, across demographics … (So) when we see improvement, it’s going to look different, the numbers are going to look different …”
Throughout the meeting, the city leaders on hand had been mostly quiet, listening. Deputy mayor Kim spoke, finally, saying, “We’re not silent because we’re shy, but because this is a conversation your community needs to have with your school leadership.” She said Mayor Murray has recognized income inequality as an issue, “the gap between the haves and have-nots,” and that he “fundamentally believes in a holistic approach.”
Though time constraints were bringing the meeting to a close, one attendee declared, “I don’t want to be here in another year, fighting again … I don’t want to leave without something tangible, I want to make a different in this community. Tell us what we can do.”
The meeting ended, before attendees broke into informal small conversations, with a vow of collaboration, a request for community members to get into the schools, a recognition of its dedication to help find solutions, and a promise that school-community leaders will come back for more conversation.