East Olympia Middle School's concentration on 1 ‘R’ – reading – boosts scores

lpemberton@theolympian.comNovember 10, 2013 

The work behind the new “2013 School of Distinction” banner that will be presented at East Olympia Elementary School this week involves a major shift in the way reading is taught at the school.

The new program includes weekly teacher and staff meetings specifically about student improvement and stacks of three-ring binders with bar charts and other data that track each student’s progress.

“We’re teaching to them,” Principal Patty Kilmer said. “We’re not teaching a curriculum.”

The nearly 500-student school in the Tumwater School District is one of nine Thurston County winners of the prestigious award. Schools in the Griffin, Rochester, Olympia, North Thurston and Yelm districts also won the award, which is given by The Center for Educational Effectiveness in partnership with the Association of Educational Service Districts, the Association of Washington School Principals, the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington State School Directors’ Association. About 100 schools in the state won the award.

“Essentially, it’s the top 5 percent of schools that are improving in the state,” said Marilyn McGuire, vice president of school and district improvement for The Center for Educational Effectiveness. “The point of the award is that improvement is a process, and getting to standard is a process.”

East Olympia Elementary has won the award three years in a row, a rare feat.

“They said only 1 percent of schools get it a second time in the state,” Kilmer said.

Olympic View Elementary School in Lacey also won the award for the third year in a row. In order to qualify, a school must have five years of improvement on performance data.

East Olympia Elementary School is off Rich Road in southeast Thurston County. About one-third of its students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, an indicator of poverty, and 10 percent to 18 percent of its students have been classified as special education during the during the past five years.

In 2008, East Olympia was in the first year of Step One for not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, after reporting dismal standardized test scores with only 64.9 percent of third-graders passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

The Tumwater School District hired two so-called teachers on special assignment who worked a few hours a week at East Olympia and other schools to identify problems.

They quickly discovered one of the problems: The school’s reading curriculum at the time covered only about 60 percent of what students were being tested on in standardized tests, Kilmer said.

“They really come in and created a reading system,” said instructional facilitator Angie Gourley. “They took our curriculum apart.”

At that time, the school was using a “Walk to Read” program in which students can get small-group reading instruction with other students reading at the same level, for some of its grades.

It expanded the program to all grade levels, and all reading levels. The school now offers 90 minutes of reading instruction a day for younger students, and 45 to 60 minutes of direct reading instruction for older students. Kids can also get an additional 30 minutes of reading intervention, where they work on specific strategies or skills, if needed.

“When you watch them, and reading is happening, there is that look (and) it’s not too hard and not too easy,” Kilmer said. “Because you know that look — when it’s too hard and they’re just dying or it’s too easy.”

Teachers are often assigned to students who aren’t in their class because the groups are based on student outcome and instructional need.

That line of thinking — that a teacher would be responsible for all kids in a certain grade level, not just the ones in their classroom — was a major change in philosophy at the school, Kilmer said.

But the move helped build a stronger team approach among the teaching staff, Gourley said.

“It allowed us to share the load,” she said.

Reading has become a cherished subject; reading groups are even squeezed into the schedule when there’s early dismissal, assemblies and parent-teacher conferences.

The school has increased the number of assessments that students go through, and each week teachers meet to talk about what the data says about their kids.

“We can break it down to the specific sounds the kids are having trouble with,” Gourley said.

Trouble areas can be corrected immediately with modifications to instructional materials or a teacher’s approach, Kilmore said.

But one of the biggest changes was the shift in philosophy that good just isn’t good enough.

During the 2008-09 school year, 79.2 percent of third-graders passed the WASL. Last school year, a whopping 89 percent of third-graders passed the newer standardized test, called the Measures of Student Progress.

“Our scores were very good, but I stood in front of the staff and said, “Good is the enemy of great,’” Kilmer said. “Everybody sort of embraced that.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 lpemberton@theolympian.com @Lisa_Pemberton

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