Summer school helps Walla Walla kids catch up

The classes are the latest in a series of interventions to halt and reverse regression in student academic performance.



Armando Vega, a 5th grader at the start of fall classes in 2011, relaxes with a bin of books and some summer reading during summer school at Blue Ridge Elementary.


Blue Ridge Elementary summer school teacher Tina Brennan enthusiastically leads students in a vote-by-clapping as to whether a book being discussed is designed to entertain---a student's hand holds one of the star-shaped choices---or inform. For this particular book, it was a tie with students determining that a book could be both entertaining and informative.

WALLA WALLA - The simple gesture of moving two room dividers at Blue Ridge Elementary - to create one vast open space from three classrooms - stirred nostalgic memories for Linda Boggs and Leah Cruddup.

Boggs, assistant superintendent for Walla Walla Public Schools, was once principal of Blue Ridge. And Cruddup, a district improvement facilitator, once taught at the school.

Both women walked through the open classroom space recently, observing as groups of children worked on reading before discussing what they'd read with their instructor.

Years ago, Boggs ran a summer program at Blue Ridge similar to the one launched June 27 at the school. Opening the accordion walls that divide the classrooms was once common practice.

The old summer program was eventually lost through funding cuts, and from questions over why similar programs weren't being done at all the district's elementary schools, Cruddup said. In the years since Boggs left, previous years of gains began to take a slide through a mix of factors.

Now, Blue Ridge students are again filling their school's rooms over the summer, as the stakes to make gains in reading and math have gotten increasingly higher. And any questions over fairness of programming are no longer a concern.

"These kids need more," Cruddup said. "They just simply need more."

The summer classes are the latest in a series of interventions at Blue Ridge that are focused on halting and reversing a trend of continued regression in student academic performance. And so far, those interventions appear to be working.

The changes began two years ago, when Principal Kim Doepker was selected to take over leadership of the school. That same year, Blue Ridge was targeted as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, qualifying it for federal School Improvement Grants.

Although federal grant money was sought, Blue Ridge was not among the recipients. But the classification and application process guided the school and district leaders in the right direction toward turning the school around.

One of Doepker's first tasks was to introduce a dual-immersion model of education to the school, where all children learn two languages - in this case, English and Spanish - at the same time. The program launched in kindergarten last year and is a switch from the transitional model once used, where children who speak English as a second language learn exclusively in their first language through third grade.

Blue Ridge also launched "platooning," where third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students rotate between teachers specializing in a particular subject for their daily lessons.

Doepker said interventions were needed to reverse a widening achievement gap and to increase the number of children meeting or exceeding grade-level standards in core subjects. Compounding the challenges was the demographic realities. Blue Ridge is a district school with a high poverty rate and a large Latino population.

Doepker said the school's staff is not focused on changing demographics, but understanding the challenges that come with poverty, and with teaching English language learners, to offer students the best chance at improving academically.

"I think staff knows, and I've made it clear, here's the demographics," Doepker said. "What can we do within our time to make a difference."

Blue Ridge scores behind the district's other elementary schools on the state's standards exam, which was revamped last year into the Measurements of Student Progress. But the MSP exam is just one of several yearly assessments that gauge student progress. And in the last year, Blue Ridge students have made strides.

Blue Ridge has a dedicated math coach, Jeremy Hubbard, who works directly with students and teachers and offers specific instruction to children in small groups each day. During time reserved each week for collaboration, Hubbard can communicate with teachers on specific students' needs, and strategies.

His work helped the school's fifth-graders make such gains last year. Hubbard said at the start of the school year, only three students were meeting standards in math. By the end of the year, 15 students were meeting or exceeding standards.

Similar gains have been made in other grades. Last year's kindergarten students, learning through the dual-language program for the first time, also made huge gains. At the start of the year, 14 students were reading at grade level. By the end of the year, 45 were at or above grade level.

The gains still put Blue Ridge students behind other district schools, but the growth is significant -and an indication that the school is heading in the right direction.

Yet Dopeker said she didn't want students to lose over the summer the progress they'd made in the school year. And some students needed more time and specific attention to still reach their standards goals.

So the summer school was launched, not with the goal of getting an edge on other schools, but to simply catch students up to where they should be.

"We want to level the playing field," Doepker said.

The summer program was open to all Blue Ridge students, with the hopes of reaching about 220 students whom school leaders deemed in high need of additional academic attention. Not all, but many of those students showed up for school, with more expected as the session continues.

The Blue Ridge program is staffed with about 12 teachers and 22 teachers' assistants, at a cost of about $100,000. Funding came from grants, and from a district contribution.

The summer classes run through Aug. 18, meaning kids will get a brief break before the regular academic year starts Aug. 23.

Instruction is being focused on reading and math, with specific detail given to the individual needs of each student. The program was open to Blue Ridge students who will be in first through fifth grades next year. About 15 students heading to Garrison Middle School this fall were also invited.

Doepker said the summer work is a combination of specific work for each student and enrichment activities.

A student who is struggling with phonics will get to spend specific time working on those skills this summer. Another student with good language skills but lacking math understanding can get attention on math.

"It absolutely is prescribed," Doepker said.

Hubbard, the school's math coach, is continuing his work at Blue Ridge this summer.

"We're really looking at what their holes are," he said. "We've just given them eight more weeks to do it."

The students spend the first half of the morning working on reading and the rest of the day on math. During that time, the children can work in smaller groups so the teachers and aides can assess individual needs. The school runs 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday.

Incoming kindergartners were not included in the summer program, but Blue Ridge has other plans to get its young students prepared for the new school year.

Kindergartners will head to school Aug. 1, three weeks before the academic year starts. Doepker is also considering extending the school day in the future to give students dedicated time on the arts after school.

These changes - the summer school program, the early start for kindergarten, a possible longer day - might indicate a move toward year-round school, but Doepker said she is not necessarily an advocate. More time in class doesn't always equal better results, she said. The programs currently in place, and those being explored, require more time, but are meeting specific needs of current students.

"It's the quality of instruction that matters for these kids," she said.


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