Families work to boost Washington School’s image
When Lorrie Murray moved to Alameda from Oakland, the person who sold Murray’s family their home offered this directive: Whatever you do, don’t send your kids to Washington School.
Now Murray is president of Washington’s PTA, and she and other parents and school staffers are working to turn the school’s reputation around and to attract parents in Washington’s attendance zone who may be considering other options without giving Washington a chance.
Parents have developed a video that touts the school’s K-1 loop program – which keeps students in those grades in the same classes, with the same teacher, for those two years – and also a brochure for new parents offering the school’s information. They have also put together a host of programs at the school, including a community garden, a recycling program and a pilot School Smarts Parent Academy to help parents become more involved in the school and more effectively advocate for their children’s educational needs.
“I love that school,” Murray said.
Murray’s relationship with the school got off to a rocky start. She said she asked then-superintendent Ardella Dailey why the school had such a bad reputation at kindergarten information night, but Dailey wouldn’t acknowledge the issue. On her tour of the school, then-principal Niel Tam, who is now a school board trustee, announced he was retiring at the end of the year.
Murray applied to send her daughter, Ella, to Paden, but didn’t get in. So she sent Ella to Washington for her first few weeks of kindergarten, hoping to find her a space elsewhere.
Then Murray got to know Ella’s teacher, Mary Robillard. “She was amazing,” Murray says. The parents Murray met were amazing too, she says.
“There was no boogeyman,” Murray says. “I don’t know what all the fuss was.”
Murray and others associated with the school couldn’t say exactly how Washington got the reputation it has. The school’s principal, Judy Goodwin, said many of the people she met while selling school T-shirts at last September’s Webster Street Jam stopped to let her know they had attended Washington, and they offered positive reflections on the school.
“I think there is a perception in this town. Yet I think this school is the world,” Goodwin said.
Murray said some might find the school’s exterior to be institutional, while others could be put off by the ocean of asphalt that greets passers-by. The school’s test scores – Washington has the lowest academic performance index score of any elementary school on the Island – could also be a barrier, people associated with the school said. Washington also qualifies for Title I federal funds because more than 40 percent of its students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, though it shares that distinction with three other local elementary schools.
The school’s test scores helped it land on a newly generated list of the 1,000 lowest performing schools in California, though many have argued that the list is flawed (it contains 13 schools with test scores that meet or exceed the state’s performance goal of 800, a mark that Washington came within three points of last year, and skips over other, lower-performing schools). Still, the designation forced the school district to send letters to parents letting them know they could ask for their children to be sent to another school – a letter which some felt offered the impression the school was closing.
And parents were dismayed to learn at the end of the last year that the school would be getting its fourth principal in five years, though they have since rallied around Goodwin, who is beloved by many of the families she has worked with over the 12 years she’s served as a principal in Alameda’s schools.
Relations between Washington parents and district leaders have been rocky too, with the district’s early proposals to close the school if additional funding isn’t found and the letters to parents raising hackles. But efforts to mend those relations have been active as well.
“That school has families that are very involved in the school, who are working hard to make it a great place for kids,” Assistant Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said. “The district does respect this student community and wants to support it.”
“When I walked into this school I thought, ‘This is a great school,'” Goodwin said as she strolled the school’s wide halls, which are lined with colorful displays of student art and world flags – and big, bright classrooms. (The school’s walls are also decorated with a large, jelly bean portrait a tiger – the school mascot – made by a 2008 kindergarten class.)
Goodwin said the school’s scores have been improving over the past few years. In addition to raising its API score by 17 points last year following a 20-point gain the year before, and it saw a huge gain in students’ math proficiency, raising its proficiency level above that enjoyed by some of the district’s other schools.
Efforts to increase scores for the school’s low-income students and English learners – who make up 165 and 126 of the school’s 296 students, respectively – have also met with some success, Goodwin said; between 2009 and 2010, English learners realized a 13 percent gain in English proficiency levels and a nearly 16 percent gain in math proficiency levels, while the math proficiency level for low-income students jumped 19 percentage points.
This year, Goodwin has been working to establish basic routines at the school, adding a morning opening each day, and to align routines and rituals with programs and the Title I funding the school gets.
That money pays for a number of programs, including Washington’s after-school LEAPS program, which provides care and homework help. It also pays for a reading program. Goodwin brought a reporter to the school’s reading room, where teachers James Venable and Betsy Weiss work on a host of reading strategies with children who are struggling – all of which are laid out with pins on a brightly colored board.
The school also has a Story Bridge program where elders read with fourth and fifth graders; Alameda’s firefighters will also soon be coming in to assist in Washington’s classrooms, a partnership developed by the school’s PTA. Washington is also home to a handful of preschool programs, Goodwin said. The school also boasts a computer lab, and a library with additional computers and a tidy reading area marked by couches.
Goodwin said Washington also offers a stable teaching staff; first grade teacher Patty Osborne, for example, has taught at Washington for 19 years, while fifth grade teacher Liza Young has been at the school for seven years.
“This is a calm, caring school. It’s more calm than other schools in Alameda,” Young said.
Murray said the PTA has struggled to raise funds among its parent community, but the PTA – and teachers at the school – have scored other successes. Young, for one, recently won a nearly $14,000 grant to take the school’s fourth and fifth grade students on a three-day trip to Camp Arroyo, a 138-acre, YMCA-run outdoor education camp in Livermore.
The PTA has scored grants to help pay for a kindergarten music program, something not typically offered by Alameda’s public schools. And like other PTAs, it offers a host of special events for families: A multicultural night, a talent show and a new Spooktacular event for Halloween.
“It’s a great bunch of people in a small school looking to make things happen,” Murray said.
Meanwhile, parents are considering the idea of turning the school into a magnet, something the school district supports. McPhetridge said he’s hopeful the school district can consider a magnet as proposed – the district could see another $12 million a year if the Measure A parcel tax passes – and Washington has been active in advocating for one.
But Murray said she and others at the school are dedicated to continuing their improvement efforts regardless of what happens at the ballot box in March.
“We as a community are not waiting to see whether the parcel tax passes. We’re moving ahead,” Murray said.