I-728 is changing schools

School-funding initiative passed by voters a year ago has poured an additional $19.5 million into Snohomish County classrooms, with some spectacular results.

By Eric Stevick

Herald Writer

In September, as new sets of wide-eyed and wiggly-toothed students stared up at them, kindergarten and first-grade teachers at Highland Elementary School in Lake Stevens had a nagging feeling that something was missing.

Their classrooms seemed roomier, and they had more time to work individually with their children. Yet something just seemed odd.

"We kept feeling like we had a whole bunch of absent kids," said Kirsten Judd, a first-grade teacher.

A year ago, when Judd taught third grade, she had 25 students in her classroom. This year, by design, there are 18. Judd can have reading groups with as few as four children, and she can work closely with them each day.

"I just feel that the amount of contact time I have with the students is so much more than I have had in the past," Judd said. "I’m going to enjoy every minute of it."

Highland is not alone. Kindergarten and first-grade classes throughout the Lake Stevens School District average fewer than 17 students, compared with nearly 24 last year.

The difference: Washington’s voters a year ago Tuesday approved Initiative 728, which dramatically changed the way the state invests in schools by giving school districts more money and discretion on how to spend it.

Statewide, 72 percent of voters approved the initiative. It received 73 percent of the vote in Snohomish County.

In its first year, I-728 generated $200 million, pouring an additional $19.5 million into Snohomish County classrooms. More than half of that amount has been spent to reduce class sizes, according to a Herald survey of area school districts.

That mirrors the statewide trend, according to a Washington Association of School Administrators’ survey. School districts across the state are spending 55 percent of their I-728 money on class-size reductions, 22 percent on before- and after-school programs along with summer school and all-day kindergarten, 15 percent on training, 5 percent to improve school buildings and 4 percent on pre-kindergarten programs.

Each district has its own priorities, some based on national research, some on limited classroom space.

While some districts, such as Lake Stevens, spend more in elementary schools, others, such as Monroe and Stanwood, invest more heavily in extra math, writing and science teachers in middle or high school.

Other investments: Lake Stevens now offers foreign language at its two middle schools; Everett is helping pay tuition for educational assistants to become special education teachers; Marysville has invested $195,000 to reduce class size in writing-intensive high school classes; Stanwood improved a middle school science lab.

As Mari Taylor walks the hallways and peers into kindergarten and first-grade classrooms at Highland, she feels a sense of affirmation. Taylor, a Lake Stevens School Board member, was part of the statewide grass-roots group that came up with I-728. To Taylor, the beauty of the initiative is community control of the money.

"It’s kind of silly to say … I am still in sort of a ‘pinch me’ mode," Taylor said.

In Lake Stevens, the decision to reduce class sizes in the earliest grades was made after community forums, faculty feedback and a review of research.

An oft-cited four-year class-size study in Tennessee provided convincing evidence: Students who had been placed in small classes from kindergarten through third grade had higher grade point averages in high school, better high school graduation rates and were more inclined to go to college. The study suggested classes of 15 to 17 students.

Lake Stevens’ goal for kindergarten and first grade was an average of 16 to 18. It hired 9.5 teachers for those two grade levels after determining it had enough space.

Parents of kindergartners and first-graders are noticing a difference.

Wendy Stoen has three children older than her son Devin, a first-grader at Highland. He is further ahead in reading than they were at the same age.

One barometer for Stoen: Devin was the first of her children to bring home a chapter book — "Goosebumps: The Night of the Mummies" — in the first grade.

"We have seen a world of difference for him," Stoen said. "The extra attention he gets, it’s just amazing."

Gail Paslay has a first-grader at the school and has been impressed by how much more the children concentrate on their tasks. "One of the most amazing things is to go in there and it’s total control. These kids are listening."

Horizon Elementary School in south Everett — a campus with 114 students learning English as a second language and a revolving door of families moving in and out of the neighborhood — doesn’t have the luxury of making the class sizes smaller.

"You have to make decisions on what you have and what you don’t have," principal Leslie Clausen said.

At Horizon, what they don’t have is space.

However, the campus in the Mukilteo School District is providing more direct contact time between teachers and students by hiring two extra teachers who go into classrooms to provide extra help. One specializes in students learning English; the other concentrates on students who need extra help to reach grade level.

"Without Initiative 728, you won’t get this kind of contact with a certificated teacher who can get down to what the learning needs are of these kids," Clausen said.

"The chance for teachers to build close connections with their students by having fewer students will bring great dividends in both the academic and the (other) areas that form the essence of public education," said Wayne Robertson, superintendent of the Edmonds School District. His district spent 79 percent of its $4 million in I-728 money on reducing class sizes.

Smaller class sizes in kindergarten and first grade will provide "much more diagnostic, targeted language development and literacy (and) reading strategies so all children can become readers in first grade," Robertson said.

In the Mukilteo district, while half its $2.6 million in I-728 money has been spent on reducing class sizes or increasing the ratio of teachers to students, there is also an aggressive before- and after-school instruction program. At last count, 697 students get help beyond the traditional six-hour school day and a bus ride to and from home.

At Horizon, for instance, 70 first- through fifth-graders get an additional hour of school each day, while 30 kindergartners attend for another 45 minutes.

The theory is simple: More time on a task will result in more learning.

It was a challenge for many districts to decide how to spend their I-728 money, said Dwayne Slate, director of the Washington State School Directors Association.

"In the first year, there was the question about whether to target it at specific kids or whether to do something more systemic for all kids," Slate said.

In Arlington, there was an intriguing blend with more preschool offerings for 4-year-olds and kindergarten classes that average 14 students.

At the elementary school, there are daily after-school programs for students who have been identified as needing extra instruction, and after-school "drop-in" programs for students who are doing well but may occasionally need help in a specific discipline.

An after-school study lab at Post Middle School, available to anyone, saw 15 students Monday, the first day it was open. By high school, there is even a mentor program that matches adults with at-risk students, and online classes for students trying to catch up on credits.

For all the sense that I-728 will make a difference, there is also a skeptical feeling that the spigot will be turned off, especially with bleak state revenue forecasts.

Backers of I-728 are gathering data and testimonials, fearing that state lawmakers may tinker with the voter-initiated law or cut other elements of the education budget.

Slate doesn’t believe lawmakers will touch I-728 in the near future. Politically, voters approved I-728 with at least a 60 percent "yes" vote in every legislative district in the state. Moreover, it would take a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate during the next two years to amend the law. However, two years from now, the initiative kicks in more money — lots more money. This year, I-728 distributes $194 per student from state property tax and lottery proceeds.

In the past, when the economy was vibrant, the money would have gone into a surplus budget. Now, state budget officials say, it is likely to come from the general fund, which pays for a variety of competing services from education to health services to natural resources.

After 2004, I-728 increases to $450 per student in state property tax, while the lottery money will go into a separate school construction fund.

"And that probably scares the heck out of a lot of legislators," Slate said.

You can call Herald Writer Eric Stevick at 425-339-3446

or send e-mail to stevick@heraldnet.com.

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