Rock Island school seeks higher standard

By Doug Flanagan

The 2011-12 school year began Aug. 31 at Rock Island Elementary School. Principal Sue Kane recently talked with the Empire-Press about certain goals she’d like to see the school achieve this school year and other issues.

EP: How excited are you and the staff to get the school year started?

SK: It is (an exciting time). Over the summer vacation, the (Eastmont School District) took 64 teachers over to Seattle for Professional Learning Communities. One of the things that they’re finding in professional development is the teachers themselves have all this expertise, and yet a lot of times we’ll have someone that flies in and tells us how to do something, and then goes away, and then it either gets done or it doesn’t. They’re finding (that) if we can allow the teachers to find the time to work together, and then set goals, then do common assessments, (they’ll be better off). They get the results and say, ‘Oh, my kid’s really got this, but they didn’t get that, but your kid’s got that,’ and they learn from each other, so that’s really an exciting thing. Some of the schools have already started it, but this was the first time that Rock Island has taken a whole group over. That’s our excitement for the year, to get this going. In the last contract negotiations, one of the things we heard over and over is teachers need more time to work together if this is going to work. Every week they’re going to spend an hour together to improve student learning. That’s the bottom line. Most of them are going to be doing grade-level teams, but of course you need to know not just what the grade level is doing, but you need to know what the one above you and below you is doing. The district is going to work to get us some time where those can kind of mesh together.

EP: What goals would you like the school to achieve this year?

SK: This year, as the test scores and things come out, our fourth grade took a dip across the board. One of our goals is to No. 1 figure out why, because we’ve been doing fantastic. We haven’t even started looking at that. We’ve kind of gone through a process where two years ago we had a pretty severe funding cut; we had to rip a number of para-eduacators, and some of the very things that were working here at this school that helped (us) get the Blue Ribbon Award (were) gone. The next year we were able to get some things put together a little bit better, and this year, another program that we’re trying to implement — we’ve been trying to do it limping along, but we’ve been trying to do it a little bit better — is called Response To Intervention. If we find (students) have gaps, then they go to smaller groups to figure out, OK, what aren’t they understanding, and so you just keep working with them. Let’s say they didn’t get it at that point, so they go to a more intensive group. So we’ve now set our schedule up so that we have a time in the day for reading and for math, and each grade level has a specific time (for) extra help in those areas. We’re trying all these different things to make sure that our students learn what they need to know.

EP: Are there any significant changes for the school this year?

SK: Because of some shifting throughout the district, we actually have two new kindergarten teachers that are new to our school. One was our intervention specialist last year, and one was the kindergarten teacher from Cascade. (Us and Lee Elementary School) have full-day kindergarten that is funded by the state. The state started a program called ‘WA Kids,’ and the idea behind it is to connect with the families more as kids enter school, and also do a little more assessment in a different way so they can tell (if) full-day kindergarten really is effective. A week before school started, our kindergarten teachers got trained on this new assessment process. Usually, the first day of kindergarten, the parents bring the kids in to meet people, and it’s kind of a come-in-whenever-you-want (environment). The first day of kindergarten is different than everybody else. Well, ‘WA Kids’ asks that the teachers set up conferences with every new kindergarten student, a 30-minute conference with the parent. So our kindergarten teachers are just thrilled. One of them said, ‘It’s so great because I’m getting all this information from the parents, the people that know the child the best.’ That’s what they’ve been doing for the first two days, and (the third day), the parents brought the kids in for half a day to kind of see the school. The first day for kindergarten (was Tuesday). That’s quite a bit of a change.

EP: What significant challenges do you see the school trying to tackle this year?

SK: We’re a pretty high-poverty school. About 90 percent of our kids receive free and reduced (price) lunch, so with that whole culture, it’s really a cultural thing. Last year, our goal was to really work with the kids on taking a look at their future. (We asked them), ‘Where do you want to be in your near future?’ and helped them to see how important their education is. We want to try and improve that. Student achievement is important, but the whole child, the whole life, is even more important, so we really want to help them see why we want them to learn.

EP: How do the school’s latest test scores look?

SK: It was kind of an up-and-down thing. Our third-grade (Measure of Student Performance) scores stayed where they were before, so that was good. The big challenge in that area is they either keep changing the test or they keep changing the standards. We had a pretty good program as to how to get the kids ready for the test, and they changed the test. Then they changed it again. This year, we’re in this transition between our state standards and the national standards. They shouldn’t be that much different, but we have to see where the differences are. Anytime you have two sets of standards, sometimes they decide, ‘Well, I think you should teach this in second grade,’ but we’re teaching it in third grade, so we have to get all that aligned.

EP: The school has had success over the past few years, and has been recognized for that success with the Blue Ribbon Award and other commemorations. What are some of the reasons that the school has been able to have that success?

SK: (The school) has had some great leadership in the past. Bev Baugh got them really going along the track of what’s called the core literacy program, so it was so much more focused, and they brought in somebody that worked with the student, (and the) teachers had a specific way to teach kids how to read. That was a very successful program, and in fact, we’re still using it. That was the first change that started getting things turned around. Casey Quack did a really nice job of helping pull scores and helping teachers seeing what those scores mean. That was the next thing. It’s been a progression of probably 15 years.

EP: Has that success made the school even more motivated to achieve higher goals?

SK: Definitely, because we know the kids can do it. We can say, ‘It doesn’t matter that we have a really high poverty rate, or a really high (English Language Learner) group. These kids can learn, and we believe in them.’ The tricky part and the frustrating part, especially for the staff, has been that in the past they have had more help, and they knew what to do with it. Anytime when you have a great program, if you start taking the parts of it away, (it can change). But we’re going to continue our tutoring program.

EP: What notable events are scheduled for this year?

SK: We have an open house coming up. We’ll have our winter program. Last year we did the whole David Thompson thing. We haven’t decided what the theme is going to be this year. I think we’re going to try to (take the kids canoeing) again, but I haven’t heard for sure. The kids are getting ready to go to the Salmon Festival (later this month, in Leavenworth).