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A Chance to Fly


A struggling reservation school takes on the challenge of school transformation, determined to give students wings.


By Mary Ellen Flannery


 

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

The directions to Golden Eagles Elementary go something like this, “You will travel through a canyon, past a dam, up a steep incline with an S curve, and then basically start wondering if you have gone too far and missed it. You have not.”

 Following the glistening snake of the Spokane River, about 40 minutes outside the small farm town of Reardon, Washington, the first sign of civilization is the towering pile of trash of the Spokane Reservation’s landfill, followed by the Catholic cemetery on the right and the new tribal community center on the left.

Finally, the road brings you to Golden Eagles, previously known as Wellpinit Elementary, a small two-story brick school with 170 students, 90 percent of them Native American, and a 6-foot tall Native war shield on its lawn.

Until this past spring, you couldn’t find this place by mistake, as teacher Anne Taylor says. But in April, then-Wellpinit Elementary was tapped for a three-year $1.3 million federal School Improvement Grant, which it won with a union-led application that promises to transform instruction through frequent professional training and the regular observation of instructional coaches.

And since then, the road less traveled has been trafficked on a daily basis by dozens of experts in school improvement, a cadre of teacher trainers from regional and state offices, and a phalanx of National Education Association leaders — all working collaboratively to send the Golden Eagles into a soaring flight of achievement.

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Video Extra: Transformation in Wellpinit

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This is exactly the kind of transformative work supported by the NEA Priority Schools Campaign, which seeks permanent change in the nation’s lowest performing schools.

From Las Vegas, where empowered educators are writing budgets and choosing curriculum; to Connecticut, where teachers are meeting with university advisors to make data-driven decisions: the Priority Schools campaign means union educators are sitting down in an unprecedented way with school officials, community members, and state and federal lawmakers to support innovation.

There is no silver bullet to fix all schools but “there are countless examples of reform currently underway in public schools across the country—all developed and implemented by educators,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

Take Off

I wish we learned times. I wish we went to the fair. I wish I was smaller. I wish I drank coffee. I wish I had a trampolen. I wish I had a cat and a dog.

 The third- and fourth-graders in Anne Taylor’s multi-age classroom write in their discussion journals, old-style black-and-white composition books, almost every day, often responding to prompts from Taylor like this one: What do you wish for?

1. I wish I can go to Hollywood. 2. I wish I can be a good basketball player. 3. I wish I can airplane fly.

Taylor’s own wish list is just as ambitious. She wants all her kids to read on grade level. She wants them all to master the state’s math standards. She wants her school to make Adequate Yearly Process and shake off its third-class label.

But considering where they’re coming from, it’s almost like wishing for an NBA contract. Last year, about a third of Wellpinit’s fourth-graders met the state’s reading standards and 15 percent met the mark in math. At the same time, one of her third-graders was spotted sniffing gas from an open can on her front porch.

I wish for a four wheeler. I wish for my grama to be alive. I wish for my other grama to get better. I wish school was a year and summer was a year too.

The school year is only a few weeks old, but so packed with changes that it feels like a year. Golden Eagles has a new name, a new address in the old middle school, and a new principal. In years past, they relied on one of the high school’s assistant administrators.

They’ve also tested every one of their kids, mapped their curriculum to state standards, and had weeks of valuable training. “It’s not the kind of training where you think, ‘I should have just stayed in my room,’” says fourth-grade teacher Sarah Neumann.

But it’s the instructional coaches that everybody’s talking about.

 

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Neumann can't sit down on her couch without a stack of papers, but believes her hard work will elicit results.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

In a profession that can be remarkably isolated, and sometimes insular, Golden Eagles’ teachers are throwing open their doors to frequent observation. And, although it would be normal for teachers to be apprehensive about all the hot lens of this new microscope, Wellpinit’s welcome mat is out. “We’re in a community where we can use all the adult help we can get,” says Neumann frankly.

“In teaching, typically do your own, same thing. We're being given an opportunity to improve — and I'm really excited about it. I look at it as a really positive thing for us and the kids and the community,” adds Taylor.

For their part, the instructional coaches, like Nancy Comstock, a former WEA board member, have made it very clear that they’re not there to supervise or evaluate — “we’re here to support the teachers,” says Comstock.

In Flight

Click! Anne Taylor holds a stopwatch in her hand and her eyes flit between the running numbers and the running mouths of her fourth-graders — 20 seconds, 30 seconds. Are they ever going to quiet down and move on to math?

 

Teacher Anne Taylor says her school has been turned upside-down, but she believes that their ultimate direction will be toward improvement.

Photo by Daniel Sheehan

 

Taylor, the only National Board-Certified teacher in Wellpinit, is tired of wasting time in transitions, so now she’s timing them, carefully recording the seconds that exceed the allotted minute — and announcing her findings to a chagrined class.

 “So far this week, I have 3:49,” Taylor announces. “And you have…”

 “Zero,” whispers one.

This idea — the stop watch, the sense of competition — was suggested to Taylor by one of the coaches. Meanwhile, down the stairs, Kelsie Williamson — the first new teacher hired here in six years -- is struggling with 26 fifth-graders who don’t seem to want to listen or learn, and hoping her visitors can help.

“This is the perfect first-year teacher opportunity,” she says. “I can always use their help and ideas.”

Although the coaches won’t be involved in evaluating teachers, a new evaluation system is a big part of the promised transformation process. In years past, Wellpinit’s teachers were evaluated annually with a simple one-page form.  But this year, a Memorandum of Understanding promises a new tool that includes a “growth model,” to be developed collaboratively by the union and district.

As yet, it’s unclear what that will look like — “growth” could include the measurement of student progress but also the professional development of teachers, said union President Kris Wilsey.

Still, the big question that nags at Wellpinit’s educators is this — what if they do everything right and their kids still fail? Last year, Wilsey had a seventh-grader who didn’t show up on 92 days. “I knew he wasn’t going to pass the state’s writing test. I mean, how could he? He missed all that instruction!”

There are parents here who are devoted to education — but there are far more families struggling with homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, and many of poverty’s partners that you can find anywhere in America, but almost always on a Native reservation.

None of this makes their jobs particularly easy, but they also can’t be excuses for failure, says Taylor. She points to every one of her students and says, “They’ve got a brain in their head.”  Downstairs, in a small break room, three bulletin boards are covered with Post-its, each representing one student’s reading score — and a depressing mass of them fall to the left, like a broken-down car…

Or an airplane at take-off.

“This is actually a lot like building an airplane while it’s flying,” says Wellpinit’s new principal, K.C. Abbott. But he points to the Post-Its and says, “I think a lot of people will be surprised at how this looks at the end of the year.”



NEA’s Priority Schools

In NEA’s Priority Schools, educators, administrators, and parents have joined forces to help children learn. More here.


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