Grants pay off with improved Tacoma middle schools

3 struggling Tacoma schools that got $11 million in grants show reading and math advances in almost all grades

Staff writerOctober 20, 2013 

Two state assessments of struggling Washington schools that got extra federal dollars to boost student achievement give the schools mostly high marks for improving test scores, instruction and school climate.

The schools include three in Tacoma – Giaudrone, Jason Lee and Stewart middle schools – that received almost $11 million in School Improvement Grants (SIG) in three years. That was the largest sum given to any Washington school district under the program in the first wave of grants, which ended earlier this year.

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Statewide, 27 schools participated – 17 in the first group that included Tacoma and 10 in a second group. Final results from that second group of schools will be available next year.

In the first wave, 76 percent of the SIG schools showed gains in reading proficiency on state tests after three years, while 95 percent of them registered proficiency gains in math.

Among Tacoma SIG schools, scores rose at all three middle school grades in reading and math at Jason Lee. At Giaudrone, scores increased in all but one category – eighth-grade reading. At Stewart, scores increased in all categories but eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math.

The 2013 grade scores at Tacoma’s SIG schools reflect trends statewide for eighth graders, said Patrick Cummings, director of research and evaluation for Tacoma Public Schools.

“We may be looking at a test calibration or standard-setting issue, rather than an eighth-grade problem,” he said.

The school district plans to sustain gains at the SIG schools with “a systematic approach to the work,” said Ben Gauyan, who oversees Tacoma’s middle schools.

The district is asking all schools, not just SIG schools, to keep a close watch on student data, he said. In addition, Gauyan said, “We’ve established instructional coaching to support job-embedded professional development.”

The SIG grants were made available to schools designated as the state’s persistently lowest-achieving schools. They were among the lowest-scoring 5 percent of high-poverty schools statewide.

The goal was to learn what interventions could raise reading and math test scores for high-poverty kids, who traditionally have a harder time reaching standards measured on state tests. Each of Tacoma’s SIG schools has more than 70 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — a widely used gauge for poverty in schools.

One report, issued by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, focused on SIG school test scores. The other, by the Bothell-based firm the BERC Group, includes survey results from school staff members, students and parents, as well as classroom observations at the schools.

The BERC report said most SIG schools employed instructional coaches for teachers. It also said SIG schools gained valuable experience in advance of state requirements to redesign teacher evaluations, because many of the SIG grants required it first.

Surveys asked participants to rate their schools on nine characteristics, including whether the school had a clear focus, high expectations and family involvement. Respondents graded their schools in those areas at the start of the SIG process and at the end. Rankings were up across the board.

Although the BERC report mostly reports survey results for schools as a group, it does single out Giaudrone and three schools in other communities for a high ranking in the area of staff collaboration.

“I’m pleased with the continued growth and progress of our SIG schools,” state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn said. “It creates a sense of optimism about what can happen in each of our schools when we focus on student achievement and teacher professional development. But adequate funds must exist to make that happen.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635


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