LUMMI RESERVATION – When Lummi Nation Schools Principal Heather Leighton started work in 2008, the school was at a low point.
The tribal school had had five superintendents and three principals in less than five years, staff turnover was high, students were getting away with poor behavior and attendance, and very few could meet state testing standards.
But now, through tougher policies, increased tutoring, staff collaboration and a stable administration, morale and academics at the 350-student, K-12 school are on an upswing.
“For the first time I’m seeing attitudes of kids changing, self-esteem rising, behavior problems lessening, and seeing kids embracing the knowledge of how well they can see themselves learning and growing,” said Lorraine Williams, a longtime special education paraeducator at the school. “It has just been an exciting year. This is how it should always be.”
“We have made some bold changes in how we do things,” said Leighton, a Lummi tribal member. “But every decision made has been in the best interest of the kids.”
For years, students at Lummi Nation Schools have struggled academically. It’s been common for few or no students to pass the state standardized tests, especially the math test.
Lummi Tribal Elementary School has failed to meet federal benchmarks seven out of the last eight school years; Lummi High has failed five out the last eight school years.
When Leighton got to the school, she spent the first year evaluating what was working and what wasn’t. Student attendance was poor, teacher turnover was high, athletes didn’t keep up their grades, and rules were enforced sporadically.
“I looked at the culture of the school and getting kids and parents and teachers and administrators to understand that it needs to be set up as a learning environment, not just a place to come hang out,” she said.
Leighton, along with Superintendent Bernie Thomas, who started in 2009, decided to make academics a priority at the school.
All students in grades kindergarten through six receive 90-minute blocks of math and reading instruction each daily, with similar emphasis in the older grades. Students in all grades are tested regularly to see where they’re struggling, and those who need help are given more instruction and assistance through an intervention class period or after-school tutoring.
High school and middle school athletes are required to adhere to a strict co-curricular policy, one that requires at least C-level grades, so they know “they’re students first, then athletes,” Leighton said.
Leighton and other staff have also worked to create clear academic goals for students and set plans on how to get students to reach those goals. Teachers have started working in “professional learning communities,” which allows them to regularly collaborate and examine data to see which students still need help. If the staff discovers something isn’t working, they can quickly respond.
“Everything this year is more proactive for student growth, rather than reactive,” said Dawn Walker, the K-6 reading coach.
For example, even with intervention efforts and new rules, middle school students were still struggling with their grades earlier this school year, with 44 out of the 62 students failing at least one class. So staff decided to pull those students from their elective classes and attend a “mandatory” study hall instead. Within a few weeks, only five students were still failing a class.
“That tells us our kids are highly capable,” Leighton said, “They’re just not understanding the bigger picture of why it’s important.”
While state assessments show Lummi students are still not meeting standards in all subjects – last spring, no 10th-graders passed the math High School Proficiency Exam and only a few third- and fourth-graders passed the math Measurements of Student Progress – regular in-class assessments show the students are making progress.
For example, the school uses a testing program called AIMSweb to measure student understanding of early numeracy and computation skills, which are good predictors of a student’s success in math. At the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, the testing indicated about 58 percent of first-graders needed intensive intervention. By the end of the year, only 3 percent needed it. There were similar drops in grades second through fifth grade.
“It’s happening,” said second-grade teacher Amy Neverdahl about academic improvement, “but any shift like this is going to take time.”
For many educators at the school, change is about more than just numbers; it’s the attitude students have toward school, testing and homework.
“We used to have students write swear words, crumple up the test and leave,” Jason Small, curriculum director of the school, said about annual state standardized testing. “Last year, we had students actually spend six hours on a single test.
“There’s been a huge shift in the perception of students toward school.”
High school senior Kristina Burke said students complain about the stricter co-curricular and attendance policies, saying it was easier to skip class and still get good grades a few years ago, but they aren’t violating the rules anymore.
“It’s nothing like before,” said the cheerleader and basketball player who is on track to be salutatorian in the spring. “We had (rules) in the past, but no one really stuck to them.”
“I think the school needs the rules,” she continued, “so the kids who are at risk of dropping out are pushed.”
This school year, administrators, teachers and students alike have noticed behavior issues lessening and interest in school increasing.
“In many schools … it can take the first week of school to acclimate,” said Neverdahl, who is her fourth year of teaching at Lummi. “But this year the kids were ready to go half-way through the third day! They were ready for academics and ready to be there.”
To encourage student motivation, the school celebrates accomplishments, big and small. At assemblies, students win awards for meeting their reading and math goals, having perfect attendance, and other benchmarks.
“Lummi students want to perform, want to do their best and want to be recognized,” said Cathy Cook, the K-6 math coach.
“I like the awards assemblies because it makes me feel like I’m improving,” said fifth-grader Michael Daniels, III, who was recently honored for meeting his reading goal.
“It actually makes me feel like I have a good talent,” said 10-year-old Aly Billy, who was recently honored for passing the Measurements of Student Progress and meeting her reading goal.
School staff have also been trying to increase family involvement at the school, sending notes and messages home inviting family members to come to help inspire their child.
“One thing Heather (Leighton) really recognized is the role of the school within the community,” said Dave Braun, the longtime middle and high school science teacher at the school.
“There’s a lot of mutual reaching out” between the families and school, said Neverdahl, adding that it didn’t used to be that way.
STILL PROGRESS TO BE MADE
Despite the progress, the school still faces many barriers, the biggest of which is student attendance, Leighton said.
Over the past couple of years, the attendance policy has become stricter, with students allowed 10 unexcused absences per semester instead of the previous rule, which wasn’t enforced much, allowing 20 days.
Part of the reason the school faces attendance problems is because many students don’t have academics emphasized at home, said Superintendent Thomas.
“We have a lot of first-generation high school students enrolled now,” he said, adding that for some students, school may be one of the more stable aspects of their lives. “We have many hurdles to make it through in order to get students to school, as well as to meet No Child Left Behind (federal standards).”
Staff members have seen a clear correlation between students’ academic achievement and the number of days they’ve missed school.
When looking at the sixth- and seventh-graders who scored a 1 on the MSP test last spring, the lowest score possible, on average those students missed about 250 days of school during their career, Leighton said. For students who scored a 4, the highest score possible, they missed maybe an average of 12 days.
“We need kids to come to school,” Leighton said. “We know certain parts of the community are suffering, facing addiction, domestic violence, gangs … and that’s why we’re implementing the social service model.”
Starting this school year, the school has a family support coordinator whose job is to connect families with social services, ensuring that students are able to make it to school and have support at h
The school has also created a teen pregnancy center, helping teen mothers finish school while caring for their new babies, and is starting to look at ways to ensure kids enter kindergarten able to read.
“If we don’t do our job and take care of our kids, they’re not going to be able to help us,” Leighton said. “I have to leave here knowing we have a community of Lummi kids that can take care of me. That’s my job.”