Film shows how one Tacoma school pulled itself out of failure

Everybody loves a comeback story, especially the ones that take place on the playing field.

This one carries just as much grit and determination, plus plenty of sweat and tears. The main players wear uniforms. There’s even a scoreboard, of sorts.

But this is a story about a school — not its athletes. And it focuses on the efforts of students, teachers and an ambitious principal to turn around a school that had been labeled as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law: Tacoma’s Stewart Middle School.

The story unfolds in a 52-minute documentary produced by Tacoma Public Schools, titled “178 Days: Confronting a History of Failure.”

Casey Madison, a member of the school district’s public information team, shot and edited the film, which follows the school’s turnaround during the 2014-15 school year.

Though a production of the school district, “178 Days” is a frank look at the problems — and sometimes painful solutions — that confronted Stewart during that crucial year.

In one scene, a teacher has learned she will be reassigned from classroom teaching to tutoring, and another teacher will take over her class. She talks about how, after learning the news, she couldn’t sleep.

“I was so upset about missing my kids,” she says, blinking back tears.

The goal going into the project was to shoot for transparency, said Madison, a former Stewart teacher and photojournalist. He said he wanted to portray the heroic efforts by teachers who make a difference in the lives of kids. As he was making the film, he said, he had no idea how it would end.

“It’s not a puff piece,” he said.

“178 Days” has been screened for school district staff members. An upcoming screening for the public has sold out. Another is scheduled May 30 at Stewart, and there could be more in the future.

The film opens with a scene that takes place in every school, every fall: Picture Day. As the photographer tries to coax smiles out of self-conscious adolescents, we hear the voice-over of Principal Zeek Edmond: “Kids don’t fail schools. Schools fail students.”

Then a teacher talks about her belief in the many people in public education who dedicate their lives to children. But within the system, she adds, there are also “so many broken parts that don’t allow for kids to succeed.”

Most heartbreaking of all are the voices of students, who echo what’s been said about Stewart for too many years:

“Oh, you go to that bad school. Haven’t you guys changed principals like, 10 times just in, like, three years?”

“People kind of look at you differently if you go to Stewart. They think that everybody at Stewart is bad and terrible.”

The film documents the factors that have plagued the school: Stewart is one of Tacoma’s oldest schools and has one of the city’s highest poverty rates.

The film doesn’t dwell on those factors. Instead, the story is told through the eyes of teachers and students, as well as through its principal.

Stewart, by virtue of its crumbling academics, qualified for federal School Improvement Grants in 2010 — part of a $4 billion boost for struggling schools across the nation, approved by Congress.

But after four years and nearly $7 million in federal funds that paid for sweeping changes, Stewart continued to struggle.

Test scores had dragged Stewart from the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide to the bottom 1 percent. It ranked 1,779 out of 1,801 schools on the Washington State Achievement Index, which measures test scores and student growth.

Edmond, who’d helped another struggling Tacoma middle school, Giaudrone, was dispatched to Stewart in fall 2014. He had a school year — 178 days — and another $600,000 in last-chance federal funding to turn things around.

He diagnosed some issues straightaway: teachers from different departments employed too many varying techniques —everything from how they wanted students to write a heading on their papers to the kind of folders those papers were kept in. It was hard for middle schoolers to keep up.

He set up a system of binders to help students get organized. He asked teachers to follow similar structures in the classroom, no matter which subject they taught. Example: Every class, from math to language arts, would start with a warm-up task.

“Kids love routine,” Edmond said. “Even though they love to tell you they don’t.”

He used the federal grant money to buy teacher training, which took place at the school in sweltering August heat before the start of the school year. He describes the period as “a four-day sweatshop.”

He brought in an expert to train teachers in uniform grading. He gave them time to meet and talk with each other during the school year. He added minutes to class time, and demanded teachers fill each hour with quality instruction.

“If you can’t deliver a quality lesson,” he told them, “it’s going to be a long period of suffering for everybody.”

Teacher Michael Joshua says the result was a schoolwide shared vision: “We were about student learning and teachers who believed you could impact student learning.”

For many years, Stewart not only struggled academically, but it also was Tacoma’s “Exhibit A” for what a dilapidated school building looked like.

Thanks to a $500 million bond measure Tacoma voters approved in 2013, the 1924 landmark on Pacific Avenue underwent a major renovation and reopened to students this year. The new campus has given the school a major morale boost.

But none of that existed in the fall of 2014.

“178 Days” chronicles the start of the school’s long climb up from the bottom. By the film’s end, the scoreboard numbers have improved. Stewart has moved up in the achievement index rankings, to No. 1,558 out of 1,801 schools. More recently, it weighed in at No. 1,196, just above the bottom third.

“I feel like we’re only just starting,” Edmond says as the film draws to a close. “There’s so much work to do.”

Edmond is headed this fall to a new post at the school district’s main office, where he will exercise his love of number-crunching as the district’s director of student data science and analytics.

His mission: to help principals use data to improve student outcomes.

He will leave Stewart in the hands of his assistant principal, Kim Messersmith, who’s been with him throughout the reform efforts.

Madison, the filmmaker, said he wanted “178 Days” to show “there is no magic bullet” for school improvement.

No grand slams, he said, but a slow ballgame.

“It’s a deep commitment to quality and leadership,” he added.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo