Teacher talk

Area educators aim to make better students

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

SNOHOMISH — In hindsight, it seems like such an obvious step to improve student achievement: put teachers from elementary and middle school or middle and high school in the same room to talk about academic targets and what skills kids may be missing along the way.

Yet, for many districts caught in the September-to-June sprint that is the traditional school year, the practice has happened infrequently, if at all.

That is changing.

For instance, in the Snohomish School District last spring and again this fall, elementary school teachers sat down with middle school math teachers to discuss expectations, swap advice and search for ways to make sure students are on pace to meet tough state learning standards.

For many long-time teachers, the meetings were a first.

Janet Duvardo, a fifth-grade teacher at Seattle Hill Elementary School in the Snohomish district, always felt she worked hard to prepare her students, only to send them "into a middle school vortex."

The chance to hear from middle school math teachers helps guide her priorities. At the same time, she feels that her suggestions, such as keeping concrete, hands-on learning tools available for math lessons in the higher grades, have been well received.

New state learning standards and statewide exams for fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders have led to better coordination among grade levels within schools. One of the next steps is for that coordination to occur between schools, said Terry Bergeson, state superintendent of the public instruction.

Similar dialogue between schools is occurring in other subjects, such as writing.

"The way we are going to get the gains is to have (coordination) between kindergarten and 12th grade … and not by having people complaining about the person ahead of them who didn’t do the job right," Bergeson said. "It’s the reason kids fall through the cracks."

"It’s a new way of thinking about our business," said Ken Hermann, executive director of assessment, instruction and curriculum for the Snohomish School District. "We must look to the left where they (students) come from, to the right where they are headed and straight ahead where they (teachers) have them for 180 days."

Hermann feared there would be initial reticence among the elementary school teachers who, by the nature of their jobs, are generalists.

"I was concerned they would be intimidated because there were math majors or a sense of wondering, ‘Have I let them down and now I am going to get nailed.’ None of that happened," Hermann said.

Harvey Morgan is a Valley View Middle School math teacher in the Snohomish School District. He has been a teacher for 29 years at elementary and middle school.

Today, he’s on the receiving end of students making the transition to middle school. What he is getting these days, he said, is a better prepared group of students, which means less time covering previously taught skills and concepts.

"I can take them that much farther," he said.

Other changes, such as a carefully chosen math curriculum, also have made a difference, but the chance to learn from peers has been particularly valuable, he said.

Morgan credits the school district for making the time available and for encouraging teachers from different schools and grade levels to make sure they are focused on the same academic targets.

The state learning standards and exams have forced teachers to work together, he said. Morgan knows he alone can’t prepare students for the state’s seventh-grade math tests in a year.

"We have to communicate. We absolutely have to," Morgan said. "It’s got to be a continuum all the way through."

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