Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A school worth studying

[10 September 2006 - The Seattle Times] In most of the ways that parents use to judge schools, Van Asselt Elementary in Southeast Seattle would seem a dubious place to send your kids. Four of five students are poor enough to get free lunch. There's no parental involvement to speak of, no aggressive PTA hosting fundraising auctions. It's one of those aging urban schools that's long been abandoned by the middle class and by whites. This year, in a school of 460 kids, only one is white. Nobody was too surprised when, five years ago, Van Asselt was put on the federal list of failing schools. Today, there's some kind of magic happening inside. ...
Two things jumped out at me — things that ought to be clarion calls for any school struggling to make it in this era of high-stakes standardized tests. One, the Van Asselt staff has a brilliant, counterintuitive strategy when it comes to the WASL. Which is that they mostly ignores it. They don't teach to the test. The test doesn't dictate the curriculum, nor does it hang like a sword over the school day. Van Asselt kids still get three recesses. And though it's no alternative school, there remains a major focus on in-school art, gym and especially music — all programs that are being shunted aside at some schools in slavish pursuit of the three R's. ... "Class has got to be engaging and creative or they won't learn," he said. "If I teach to the test I won't even get their attention." The second thing is truly inspiring. Five years ago the staff of Van Asselt took a leap of faith and began aiming the classroom instruction at the most gifted and talented kids. They call it "teach to the highest." It's accompanied by a tutoring program designed to prevent anyone from falling too far behind.

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