Big changes ahead for 2 Highline district middle schools

Highline Public Schools has released more information on its plans for Cascade and Chinook Middle Schools, both of which are eligible for potential federal grants because they’re on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools. Read on for the district’s news release:

The Highline School Board voted unanimously last night to move ahead with a federal grant application that would require major changes at Cascade and Chinook middle schools. The grant opportunity is part of new federal regulations that identify high-poverty schools with large numbers of struggling students. In order to get the funds, districts must agree to restructure the schools by next fall.

Last week, a team of 45 people, including teachers, central office staff, parents, and community partners, gathered for a two-day summit to begin formulating a restructuring plan. Sarah Weir of the White Center Community Development Association, one of the community partners to participate on the planning team, said she left the summit “feeling really optimistic about the passion and commitment of the people who serve our kids.”

“We recognize the need for school reform. We believe all students are capable of reaching their dreams, and we’re excited about the possibilities these changes will mean for our students.” said Chinook teacher Amber Larson. She emphasized that “school staff, central office leaders, the school board, and parents all hold responsibility and need to work together to make changes.”

Theresa Carlson, Cascade teacher and vice-president of the Highline Education Association, agreed, “We need to start climbing this mountain and taking some risks. We are all in this together.”

The school board endorsed the planning team’s outline and directed the district to submit the federal grant application on Friday. Elements of the plan include

1. Increasing accountability of the school board, central office administrators, and parents, as well as teachers; and giving a senior administrator authority to make bold decisions to support the schools.
2. Increasing involvement of parents and community organizations in the schools through two-way communication, bi-lingual staff, parent advisory teams, and other means.
3. Developing new ways of evaluating staff and providing meaningful incentives for staff and administrators.
4. Rethinking the way school is delivered, such as trying innovative ways of structuring the school day.
5. Use strategies that have been successful in other high-poverty, highly diverse schools, such as adjusting schools schedules to provide more learning time.
6. Setting ambitious goals for student improvement and expecting all students to become prepared for post-high school education and the workplace.

The planning team also calls for the school district to support the restructuring plans through policy, technical assistance, commitment from the school board, and creation of a plan to sustain the changes beyond the life of the three-year grant.

Superintendent John Welch told the school board the plan “builds on the great work that is already happening and Chinook and Cascade.”

The federal accountability program requires school districts to choose one of four restructuring models:

1. Closure: Close the school and send students to other schools in the district. The school board ruled out this option for Chinook and Cascade because other middle schools do not have room to accommodate all students.
2. Restart: Open the school under a third party education management organization. This option was also rejected since charter schools are not allowed in Washington and the state has not issued a list of approved third parties.
3. Turnaround: replace principal and at least 50% of staff. This option was also eliminated.
4. Transformation: Replace the principal, reform the instructional model, develop teacher evaluations with student growth as a factor, increase community engagement, and extend learning time.

The school board decided last week to use the “transformation” model at both schools.

Highline Superintendent John Welch acknowledges that the four federal models take a narrow approach to improving student achievement. “The models imply that sole responsibility for getting middle school students to grade level is with the middle school teachers and principals,” said Welch. “We know there are other issues that need to be addressed—in elementary schools, in our system as a whole, and in the community. Still, this is an opportunity to gain some resources we haven’t had before to tackle issues at the middle school level.”

The school district expects to know by March 26 if the funds will be granted. The money could start flowing to the schools by April. If that happens, teachers would start professional development this summer. There could also be summer programs for incoming 7th graders. The schools would open in September with the changes in place.

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