Poor scores at Tacoma's Stewart Middle School draw state intervention

‘We are not going to give up on them,’ district official says of Stewart Middle School

Staff writerMarch 9, 2014 

Stewart Middle School in Tacoma was one of four schools in all of Washington singled out last week for state intervention, based on its insufficient progress on state tests.

After more than $4 million in federal education reform funding spread over three years, test scores at Stewart are still bouncing along the bottom when compared with other schools across Washington.

That makes Stewart a candidate for another round of state-led reform — and an unknown amount of added money — aimed at boosting student achievement.

On Wednesday, the state Board of Education designated Stewart and Tacoma Public Schools as part of its Required Action District, or RAD, process — a step mandated by state legislation in 2010.

Josh Garcia, Tacoma’s deputy superintendent, said the district will use this process as it renews its commitment to Stewart.

“We are not going to give up on them,” he said.

Stewart, a high-poverty school on Pacific Avenue, is one of four schools in the state to be nominated for the RAD process this year. The others are in Marysville, Yakima and Wellpinit, near Spokane.

Those four schools are collectively responsible for educating more than 1,700 students, according to Linda Drake, state board research director.

“Most are not meeting standards in reading, math — or both,” Drake told the state board. “Those are over 1,700 young lives whose futures are at stake.”

She said RAD is not meant to be punitive, but creative. She said it is backed by the belief that “there isn’t any school that can’t be turned around.”

Tacoma has already announced the appointment of a new principal, Zeek Edmond, who will lead Stewart in the 2014-15 school year. Edmond is now principal at Giaudrone Middle School which, along with Stewart and Jason Lee middle schools, was part of Tacoma’s School Improvement Grant (SIG) experiment launched with federal dollars in 2010.

All three of Tacoma’s SIG schools, along with First Creek Middle School and Roosevelt Elementary School, are listed on this year’s state list of low performers, based on test scores.

But only Stewart has been singled out for RAD treatment, based on insufficient progress on state tests. Last year, Stewart’s eighth-grade math and reading test scores dropped below where they had been before SIG launched in 2010.

At the state board meeting, Garcia described Stewart as a school rich in history, but one that is suffering from declining enrollment. Once home to nearly 800 students, Stewart’s enrollment is projected to drop to about 450 next year, he said.

Stewart, originally opened in 1925, is also one of Tacoma’s most deteriorating schools, and for that reason, the historic building is scheduled for modernization. Beginning in the fall of 2015, students will move to temporary quarters at Hunt Middle School for two school years. A renewed Stewart is scheduled to open in September 2017.

So Tacoma Public Schools will try to redesign the school’s academics at the same time it’s rebuilding its physical structure.

“Stewart has gone through many transitions with leadership, as well as vision,” Garcia said. During the SIG years, Stewart went through two principals. Some teachers complained that changes in leadership and agendas were wearying, while others left the school.

“The teaching core doesn’t have a lot of experience,” Garcia said. “We need to re-invest in their professional development.”

Next steps for Stewart include an academic audit conducted by outside experts hired by the state to get to the root of what’s holding Stewart back. That audit is scheduled to get underway this month, according to state officials.

The team will visit Stewart, ask questions and look at factors that can play into school success, including student demographics, mobility (kids who move in and out of the school), resources, curriculum, leadership, and family and community support.

After the audit is completed, Tacoma Public Schools will be required to submit a plan to the state board addressing areas where Stewart needs the most help. The state board must approve the plan, which should go into effect in the fall.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) would assist Tacoma in what state officials describe as a collaborative process. OSPI would offer some services and resources to Tacoma at no cost.

State schools chief Randy Dorn emphasized that the RAD process is not a move by the state to take over local schools. But he acknowledges that developing new plans in time for the new school year in September will be challenging.

“I believe we’re headed in the right direction,” Dorn said. “People are lined up to make the next push.”

Several teachers from RAD schools elsewhere told the state board that while they have implemented a variety of well-researched academic strategies, they might have failed to address students’ social and emotional needs.

Kelsie Herda, a teacher and instructional coach at Wellpinit Elementary School, said she has regularly seen evidence of family trauma — including incarceration and alcoholism — in her students’ lives, making it difficult to focus on academics.

“I asked a student, ‘How was your weekend?’ ” Herda said. The student’s answer: “My uncle committed suicide. And my sister had stitches.”

Dorn said he has spoken with leaders at both the state Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Health about how they might be able to help needy students at struggling schools. As one example, he said the state budget now under consideration contains some new funding for juvenile mental health services.

Herda urged the state board to look beyond the numbers when assessing schools like hers at Wellpinit.

“Behind every failed test score, there’s a student with a story,” she said. “There’s a teacher with a story.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com @DebbieCafazzo

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