As many hikers and climbers know, the last stretch is the toughest.
That is something Sumner School District Superintendent Sara Johnson expected when she and her team of teachers and administrators decided to make the climb to become one of the top five school districts in Washington state in five years.
Two years ago, Sumner School District was ranked 37th in the state by School Digger, a free school-ranking service that compares school and school district state assessment scores to determine which are the best (and the worst) in the nation.
This year, Johnson announced the Sumner School District had jumped ahead and now sits as the 17th highest-ranked school district in the state.
With its new rating, Sumner is now square in the top nine percent of school districts in Washington.
While ranking schools and districts on state test scores doesn’t always reflect the value of the institution, Johnson said it’s a good place for people to start when they’re researching what schools they want to enroll their kids in.
“People have a hard time with the idea that you would rank a school district on their state assessments. It is just one ranking. I get that,” said Johnson. “But it does count in the sense that people are trying to figure out if this is a good school district or not. So when you look on there and you see a school district moving up, that indicates that something is going right in that school district.”
It was Sumner’s elementary schools that improved the most during the last two years. Emerald Hills Elementary was boosted up from 586th to 169th (out of a total of 1059 elementary schools in the state), Donald Eismann Elementary from 305th to 90th, and Bonney Lake Elementary from 345th to 139th.
Victor Falls Elementary received a lower rank than two years ago, dropping from 125th to 200th.
Lakeridge Middle school also saw some improved ratings from 186th to 107th out of 445 middle schools in the state.
Bonney Lake High School saw a slight improvement from 168th to 159th out of a total of 456 high schools in the state, while Sumner High School went down one rank from 154th to 155th.
Johnson and her team attribute the district’s ratings jump to the top-down changes Johnson has been making over the last two years, which Johnson said has helped students improve their math and reading scores.
Those test scores have also been bolstered by the district new multi-tier systems of support.
“There’s this saying a lot of people use in the business and education world. ‘The system gets exactly the results it is designed to produce,’” said Johnson. “So we’ve made systemic changes that are producing higher results. We won’t be able to tell you one thing we’ve done, but we have done a lot of things that are changing the system to get higher results.”
Multitier systems of support
Multitier systems of support is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword in the education world. In simple terms, it means assuming each child has different learning needs and abilities and being able to give each student individualized support throughout their public school years.
“We don’t treat one classroom full of kids all the same. We know there are a lot of different needs in there,” said Laurie Dent, the assistant superintendent of instructional services. “That system, to produce those higher results, has to be a system that can help the kid, no matter what the kid’s need is, and be able to serve them.”
For kids falling behind in different subjects, Johnson said, Sumner School District will enroll them in “acceleration classes.”
“In other words, the skills that you’re missing, the holes that you have, will be addressed in a preteaching class, so when they get into their regular math class, they have the skills they need,” Johnson said.
Students take their acceleration class in lieu of an elective, which Johnson said helps serve as a motivation to catch up in their core subject classes.
The idea of students moving fluidly in and out of core subject support classes is educationally superior to “tracking,” or keeping students on a track of classes, whether they be in advanced placement, regular or remedial throughout their public school years, Johnson said.
“You never stick anyone in a track and leave them there,” she said. “That’s not good teaching. Research shows kids don’t accelerate and gain in that. It has to be flexible.”
This year, the district has also implemented two Directors of Intervention Services, Beth Dykman for elementary schools and Deb Barlow for middle and high schools. Their job is to be the ounce of prevention, while acceleration classes are the pound of the cure.
“They really focus on interviewing early and often for our little guys, K-2. So as they get to sixth grade now, our hope is, since we can intervene early, they won’t need acceleration classes,” Dent said.
The district’s focus on these multitier systems of support doesn’t just mean academic support – it also means restructuring discipline and encouraging class attendance.
Last year, at Bonney Lake High School, the district tried giving students Saturday school instead of in-school or out of school suspension.
“If we can keep them in school, we keep them in,” said Johnson. “You get to go to Saturday school instead of staying home and playing video games.”
But this isn’t a Breakfast Club scenario – at least two teachers lead Saturday school, Johnson said, and the work students complete is academically useful, not just busy work.
After discipline, attendance become’s one of the districts main priorities, because as any teacher would say, kids won’t learn if they’re not in school.
“In this last year as we were looking at attendance, we were looking at students that were not attending at least 90 percent of the school year,” said Dan Lysne, director of research at Sumner. “We really became aware of a specific number of kids that were missing 10 percent or more of the school year, and we have some students that miss 20 percent or more of the school year.”
Dent said that while the 10 percent mark looks arbitrary, research shows kids who miss 10 percent (or 18 days) or more of school days is a big sign that these students are in academic trouble.
Dent and Lysne said the district will be closely tracking which students are reaching the magic 10 percent mark while teachers encourage those students to continue to come to school.
In order for the Sumner School District to reach its goal to be one of the top five schools in the state, Johnson and her team outlined a seven-step plan they hope will help improve how their students learn.
The first step is achieving an average of 98 percent daily attendance in every school in the district.
Step two is helping students achieve social and emotional competence.
Step three and four involves getting all third and eighth graders at or above their grade level for math and reading.
Step five is about preparing personalized pathways for all sixth through 12 graders, making sure each students gets the individual attention they need to be successful in school and after they graduate.
Step six is reaching a 100 percent graduation rate.
Finally, step seven is making sure every senior is college and career ready.
“I don’t think people realize this is something schools do nowadays, getting kids ready for careers,” Johnson said, explaining how the schools career advisor helps students explore career paths they are interested in while still in school. “This is a world economy. Most of these kids are probably not going to work in Sumner. Our job as educators (is) we have to be flexible and agile.”
“As with most climbs, those last miles of the journey are intense,” Johnson said. “We will continue to monitor everything very carefully and thoughtfully and make sure we are meeting the needs of kids.”