Blaine schools wrangle with federal and state reforms

Published on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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Local educators are elbow deep in adopting major reforms as they work together to hammer out the details of federal and state initiatives that fundamentally alter how students are taught, and how students and teachers alike are evaluated.

Principals from all Blaine school district schools outlined the hard work going into these reforms – and the breakthroughs coming out of them – in a midyear report to the Blaine school board February 25.

Administrators said a collegial structure that connects teachers across disciplines has led to progressive conversations about how to improve teaching. Wayne Vezetti, vice principal at Blaine High School, gave an example of a conversation between English and science teachers during a group session. 

“The English teachers were talking about how long it takes to grade essays,” he said. “A science teacher said he let his students grade their own papers, and you could see the lights going on in the other teachers’ heads. Oftentimes students are tougher on themselves, and when the students have to critique their own work based on a specific rubric, they learn the rubric inside and out. Those conversations were priceless.”

The three initiatives that will be implemented over the course of the next several years include: Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that push students to think deeper earlier in their schooling, Smarter Balanced Assessments that are designed to measure student progress towards college and career readiness and a version of the Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) called 5D, which must be adopted by the end of the 2013/2014 school year.

“Sometimes the education train speeds up, sometimes it slows down. Right now it’s going full bore,” said school board director Susan Holmes.

While the reforms have come quickly from Washington and Olympia, funds have not come at the same pace.

“With these three initiatives coming our way, not a single outside dollar has been allocated from the state or federal level,” said superintendent Ron Spanjer.

He added that the four-year school levy approved by voters in 2012 keeps the district in good shape for the short term, but implementation and training will stretch several years into the future.

“It will be ongoing, and it will take a lot of hard work,” he said, “but teachers and principals are excited about this and moving forward very quickly. I feel very fortunate to be working with such a dedicated group of individuals.”

A representative from Home Connections, the alternative learning program based out of Northwood Alliance Church, said space is at a premium but the school is on board with the CCSS protocols.

“The biggest change is that students in the alternative program now have to earn high school credit, so we’re working on a way to facilitate transcript record accuracy,” she said. “We are better able to make students the focus.”

Math teachers in grades 6-12 talked about the eight mathematical practices – components of the math CCSS content that will begin to be implemented by the end of this school year.

English language arts teachers submitted common core objectives that emphasized integration, application, rigor and complexity with the goal of bringing all students to a college- or career-ready reading and writing level by the end of their senior year.

Collaboration between departments was a common thread in all discussions at the work session. BHS principal Scott Ellis explained that a cycle of inquiry and a scaffolding of connections between departments were essential to finding the best way forward.

“It has to be school-wide,” he said. “All TPEP really is, is an evaluation program that says, ‘Show me.’ Ultimately, we’re trying to find the best way to teach kids, and the cycle of inquiry allows us to assess and help each other.”

Spanjer applauded the hard work and collaboration, and brought the goal of these initiatives to the fore when he said:

“This is about reaching the kids that we haven’t been able to reach.”

“The reports are excellent, and it’s heartening to hear of all the good work that’s being done,” Holmes said.