Low test scores mean Totem Middle School principal likely leaving

MARYSVILLE — A longtime principal is expected to be ousted Monday as the Marysville School Board grapples with new federal regulations that provide extra money but demand overhauls at schools with low test scores.

Judy Albertson has spent 11 years on the campus that was Marysville Junior High before the school was converted into Totem Middle School less than three years ago.

She is among hundreds of principals across the country who could be forced out of their jobs by July 1 under a carrot-and-hammer system that entices districts with grant money while extracting promises to make major changes, including shaking up school leadership.

Many Totem parents, students and teachers say they don’t want to lose Albertson and are frustrated with the choices.

“I feel like we are trading Judy for money,” said Michele Sawyer, the school’s PTSA president. “We are selling her almost. It feels wrong.”

“I’m shocked and sad at the same time,” said Molly Meissner, 13, an eighth grader.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Education will award states a total of $3.5 billion in school improvement grants to turn around their lowest-performing schools. That includes $50 million over three years to between 45 and 50 schools in Washington state.

A school district in Rhode Island voted to dismiss the entire faculty at a high school as part of a turnaround plan before agreeing to negotiate contracts with some of the teachers. Tacoma plans to close one school and overhaul three others, and a popular principal in Longview has opted to retire rather than be fired.

Totem landed on Washington’s list of schools scoring in the bottom 5 percent on state WASL exams for reading and math over the past three years. District leaders don’t believe Totem belongs on the list, but said their appeal was denied by state officials.

“The perception that has been painted because of the federal government (program) is these are failing schools,” Albertson said. “I’m here to tell you that Totem Middle School is not a failing school.”

The Marysville School Board faces three options Monday under federal rules. They can choose:

  • A turnaround model, which requires replacing the principal and rehiring no more than half the staff. It grants the new principal more leeway in how the school is staffed and how money is spent while increasing instructional time.

    Closing the school and moving the students to higher-achieving schools.

    A transformation model, which, among other things, replaces the principal, changes how teachers are evaluated and adds learning time.

    The school board also could ignore the federal call for change, but it might lose the chance at money and eventually be forced into taking one of the steps anyway. The Legislature is considering a bill that includes a provision requiring schools in the bottom 5 percent adopt one of the federal options.

    It is part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s education-reform package.

    “Something needs to be done for these schools,” said Viet Shelton, a spokesman for the governor. “It makes sense if you are going to identify low-performing schools you help them turn those schools around.”

    District caught off-guard

    Marysville officials say they have no idea how much money they could get to bolster instruction at Totem. They were caught by surprise less than 10 days ago when Totem was added at the state list at the last minute. That roster, which will include Tulalip Elementary School, which feeds into Totem, has not yet been released. Tulalip’s principal is new and won’t face being forced out.

    The Obama administration added money and changed the guidelines to a grant program that is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The education law requires annual reading and math assessments at most grade levels and poses sanctions on low-income schools that don’t measure up.

    “It is up to the states to decide” how to allocate money to individual schools, said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

    In announcing the new program last August, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said changes were needed to “put an end to stubborn cycles of poverty and social failure.” He wants to see 5,000 schools turn around over the next five years through the grant program.

    “We must address the needs of children who have long been ignored and marginalized in chronically low-achieving schools,” Duncan said.

    Marysville leaders say it was not fair to include Totem on the list or compare it to other middle schools. The list averages test scores over three years, but in 2007 Totem was an eighth- and ninth-grade junior high school, meaning there were no sixth- and seventh-grade test scores to include in the analysis that first year. Totem is now like other middle schools with sixth- through eighth-graders.

    Another frustration is that when Totem made the conversion three years ago, every student was new on campus.

    Totem’s seventh-grade math WASL passing rate was 24 percent compared with 35.4 percent districtwide and 51.8 percent statewide.

    District leaders say the school has shown improvement in nearly all subjects and grade levels. Its 52.7 percent pass rate on the seventh-grade reading WASL last spring was higher than the district average of 48.6 percent and made up substantial ground on the state average of 59.3 percent.

    Principal to land elsewhere

    Unlike principals in smaller districts with no vacancies, Albertson will be offered another job, said Superintendent Larry Nyland.

    “She has done an outstanding job,” Nyland said. “She has moved the district in the direction we want it to go. We will put her talents to use in effective ways. It just won’t be at Totem.”

    Rep. Dave Quall, a retired teacher who is chairman of the state House Education Committee, said the federal government provides millions of dollars to low-income schools and “they want to hold schools accountable for how they use these dollars and you can’t blame them for that.”

    Quall said his fear with the federal grants is the WASL is just one barometer of how well a school is performing and school districts could be forced to get rid of good people.

    Totem’s faculty say they are still in shock by the expected loss of their principal.

    “I was just flabbergasted,” said Tim Rice, an eighth-grade math instructor who left the business world after more than 20 years to teach. “I thought, ‘Why? She has been nothing but supportive.’”

    “There is a sense of being punished even while you are making gains,” said Tom Sturm, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher.

    Perhaps the greatest concern of Totem staff is the stigma students could feel from the label of a failing school.

    “It’s a bad reflection on us and we have really improved,” said Megan Peffer, 14, an eighth-grader.

    Alisha Purdom, 12, a sixth-grader, said replacing Albertson and the turmoil the change could create “will just make it worse, at least in the beginning. She knows us and is giving kids the confidence they can succeed.”

    Albertson said she chose to stay at Totem because her greatest passion is working to improve the academic achievement of low-income and minority students.

    “This isn’t about Judy Albertson,” she said. “This is about kids and what we need to do for them. It’s about the kids and moving on.”

    Seventh-grader Drew Hatch, a Tulalip tribal member, said there is more to judging a school than test scores. He said Albertson has worked hard to make sure students feel comfortable regardless of their cultural background. American Indians make up 24 percent of Totem’s enrollment.

    “She has put a lot of effort into our school and bringing together Tulalip and Marysville,” he said. “She sets an expectation so no one can try to make fun of other people. The school is trying to get us to be better people.”

    The way seventh-grader Quincy McFalls sees it, “we are still a work in progress but we really are progressing. The principal is the heart of the school and it is like they are taking that away.”

    Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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