July 27, 2008

Whatcom County School District Sets State Standard

By Kira Millage, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Jul. 27--DEMING -- Its high school received a Bronze Medal ranking in the 2008 list of best high schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

It was lauded in the spring by the state superintendent as an example of how to improve Washington Assessment of Student Learning scores.

All of its seniors passed the WASL before graduation this year.

No, it's not the Bellingham School District. Or Ferndale.

It's the Mount Baker School District.

Over the last couple years, the sparsely populated district has become a rising star in the education world. But how does a school district, based in rural Whatcom County, become a state and national example of "how to do it right?"

The district has several strikes against it -- about 52 percent of students are part of the free and reduced meal program, the district is almost entirely rural and its property tax base is about $1.4 billion, or about 15 percent of the Bellingham School District's tax base.

But, according to Mount Baker Superintendent Richard Gantman, the district has become successful through hard work, dedication and always looking for ways to improve.

"It's a system-wide approach," he said. "We're completely committed to students, committed to excellence and the formal process to get there."

And while the high school is the one getting the most recognition, there's more to it than that, Gantman said.

"High school success can't happen without elementary and junior high school being devoted to excellence," Gantman said. "As challenging as these times are, they're exciting times and we're learning more about how to educate kids."


The State Board of Education is just starting to push the idea of continuous school improvement, but Mount Baker began that process long ago.

For years, staff members have met, by individual school and as a district, discussing ways to improve teaching methods, test scores and more. Rather than just brainstorming, staff set goals and then research the best way to reach those goals.

"There's a lot of respect from the administration, and that's freeing for teachers," said LaLani Pitts, the head of the high school's English department and recent "teacher of the year" for Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and San Juan counties. "You feel appreciated, and that's really been empowering for veteran teachers and beginning teachers.

"If you want to be better, you have all the support you need to continue to improve," she said. "We come up with ideas together, we vote on things before we enact them. ... It very much feels like we're determining what goals are important instead of having everything real top-heavy."

For example, the staff looks at WASL scores together and rather than just celebrating success, they come up with ways to increase scores even more.

"We're doing really great in a lot of areas, and every year we're going to ask ourselves how can we do better," Pitts said. "Great, we're at 94 percent (passing), but how do we get to 96 percent?"

"The challenge is to not get complacent," she added. "We need to continue looking for ways to improve and not let things slide."


Out of continuous school improvement has come WASL preparation, tackling the issues before they become problems.

About five years ago, district staff decided that the emphasis should be to improve reading and writing. The district offers reading programs at all school levels. Test scores reflect the effort, with passing rates moving from the 40 percent to 60 percent mark in 2003 to the 60 percent to 90 percent mark in 2007.

"If you improve a student's reading ability, they're going to improve in everything," Mount Baker Principal Steve King said.

Now the focus is shifting to math and science. Freshmen at the high school are required to take science every day, even though their other classes meet only every other day. Sophomores do the same thing with math, giving them a heavy dose of the subject in the same year they are taking the test.

The students also have turned the WASL into a competition.

"It's kind of like homecoming week on steroids," said Michael Urbano, a senior and Associated Student Body officer next school year. "Everyone wants to be better than the class before them."


Even with budget problems, the district has managed to keep a wide variety of courses and programs available for students both during and after school.

At the high school, students take eight classes each semester, with four classes per day. While this means class periods are shorter than those at schools with six periods, it affords students space in their schedules for electives.

"By doing a 4 (block) schedule, it means I have less time to teach English, and I really wish I had more time ... but it's so worth it to have more electives in the schedule and for the students to be well-rounded people, rather than just scholars," Pitts said.

Many of the electives fall under the "career and technical education" heading, which includes agriculture and metal shop courses. In fact, the high school received the 2007 award for Outstanding Agriculture Education Program. It beat out schools in 11 Western states for the honor from the National Association of Agriculture Educators.

But many of these programs are ones that other school districts have cut due to budget limitations and schedule availability.

"It's the commitment of the school and district to not only maintain these programs but improve them with shrinking resources," King said. "It's my belief and the staff's belief that if we cut (career and technical education and other electives) it will have a negative impact on reading, writing and math scores."

Brian Davis, student body president at the high school next year, is worried that tightening budgets will require Mount Baker to cut programs as other schools have.

"I'd be really, really extremely disappointed if extra-curricular activities disappear," Davis said. "Baker is more than just academics."


Most people say the main reason for the school district's success is the community, both the general population and the people at the individual schools.

The junior high/high school campus turned into a kind of urban center for the rural school district, leading the community to rally behind school activities.

Community members, with or without children in the district, attend football games and arts performances. Many of the students have attended school together since junior high, if not elementary school.

"Everyone has their own little groups, but we're such a small school that everyone knows everyone and we all get along," said Urbano, who has been in the district since second grade. "We're kind of like one big family."

And since the schools are small -- only about 700 students attend the high school -- students get the opportunity to take on several roles.

"What I think is so cool about our (district) is that you can be a football player, but then you can be in the musical, you can be in the band, in the choir, and you don't have to make those choices like at some of the huge schools," said Cindy Mellema, who recently retired as the high school secretary after 29 years. "We're able to offer kids a little bit of everything, and I think they come out really well-rounded."

At the high school all students are expected to follow the motto of PRIDE, which stands for performance through preparation, respect, integrity, determination and excellence through effort.

And while some schools have a motto that students laugh at, this is one that's taken to heart, not only by the students but by the staff.

"I sit back and listen to people talk about their school and how there may be divisions between staff as far as classified versus certificated," Mellema said. "At Baker, there's not that division. The whole staff participates. If there's a big issue ... it's very inclusive and no one is left out."

"We've been the underdogs for a while," Urbano said. "It's really cool I can go to my friends in town and say, 'Hey guys, you know how you call us rednecks? Well, those rednecks are beating you.'

"It's cool to be able to say we were recognized nationally and that's something we've worked really hard for."

Reach KIRA MILLAGE at [email protected] or call 715-2266. Visit her School Days blog at TheBellinghamHerald.com/blogs.


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