SUNNYSIDE, Wash. - Relationships, enthusiasm and innovation - not assessment tests - will make education in Washington better.
That’s the message Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, delivered Tuesday to Sunnyside School District employees at their annual back-to-school meeting.
"We become so focused on this test score that we forget about all the education," Dorn told employees gathered in the Sunnyside High School auditorium.
Meanwhile, guest speaker Donna Beegle urged educators to reach out with compassion to students growing up in poverty. "What do you call homework when you don’t have a home?" she said.
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Both speakers brought the crowd to its feet — Dorn with enthusiastic chants, Beegle with a humble plea for understanding. The district has about 800 employees.
Classes begin today.
Dorn extolled the values of positive thinking and energetic motivation. He also stressed the importance of relationships, noting that graduating students often attribute their success to certain teachers, counselors or administrators.
He steered clear of controversy, for the most part, touching briefly on changes approved this year in the state Legislature that will evaluate teachers based partially on student performance — calling it an upcoming "tussle."
Senate Bill 6696, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in March, calls for an array of reforms intended to accelerate student learning. Among the provisions were broad teacher and principal evaluation guidelines that take student achievement into account.
However, school districts draft their own specifics. Several districts in the state are testing pilot programs now.
The Washington Education Association supported the legislation.
"We’re pretty excited about the opportunities," Mary Lindquist, president of the union, said in a phone interview.
Dorn was elected in 2008 after campaigning against the WASL, the oft-criticized student assessment tests. Since then, he has replaced the WASL with two shorter assessments called Measurement of Student Progress for grades three through eight and the High School Proficiency Exams taken by high schoolers.
He ended his discussion by convincing the crowd and a few volunteers on stage to join him in a side-step dance to the 1979 disco hit "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.
Dave Downing, an eighth-grade teacher at Harrison Middle School, said he appreciated how Dorn exuded the same enthusiasm he asked teachers to show.
"That guy was giving us the good attitude that we need," said the 37-year teaching veteran.
Dorn was preceded by Beegle, a motivational speaker, author and trainer from Portland who told the employees her story about growing up in generational poverty, frequently evicted and routinely living with water and lights shut off.
Even the idea of school meant more stress to the already stressful lives of her and her five brothers.
Today, Beegle, a 49-year-old mother of four, holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Portland State University. She has sold 27,000 copies of her book, "See Poverty, Be the Difference," and has founded Poverty Bridge, a nonprofit that aims to help poor people change their lives.
Beegle asked Sunnyside educators to believe in poor students’ capacity to learn and go out of their way to introduce isolated students to social settings to make them feel like they belong.
Her message struck a cord in Sunnyside, where about 85 percent of the students received subsidized meals and 33 percent live in poverty, according to last year’s census estimates.
Several teachers and classroom aides lined up to ask her for autographs after the speech.