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Pathways to Excellence

Neah Bay Elementary




In a state and nation that struggle to serve American Indian students, let alone students from low-income families, Neah Bay Elementary defies the odds.


In the northwestern-most corner of Washington State, where the continental U.S. gives way to the Pacific Ocean, there is a village. Lined with evergreens and home to soaring eagles, a protected inlet opens northward to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Vancouver Island, Canada silhouetted in the distance. Neah Bay may be remote to the eyes of many, but to the Makah – first peoples of the region - it is the center of a world the Makah nation has stewarded for generations. (Read and listen to a book in Makah) In the heart of that village is a school, where students gain knowledge from the past even as they prepare for the future.

Source: OSPI, August 2014
Data for 2011 not available.

In a state and nation that struggle to serve American Indian students, let alone students from low-income families, Neah Bay Elementary defies the odds. Statewide in 2013, less than 55% of American Indian 4th graders met standards in reading. But more than 90% of Neah Bay's Native American 4th graders met or exceeded standard goals. In one measurement after another, the school not only rises above dire state and national statistics; it truly shines as a place of learning with exceptional rates of achievement and growth.


What does Neah Bay Elementary do to springboard its children toward their full potential? How does this small village school combat the disturbing trends of the nation’s achievement and opportunity gaps? Who are the characters in this story and what do they do? What are the costs the school must pay for these successes? Most importantly, how can Neah Bay’s story fuel conversations and efforts toward change at other schools?


A Closer Look At Gaps In Education

The Achievement/Opportunity Gap is a simmering national crisis. Historically, schools have been less successful in supporting certain populations to reach their full potential – thus there is a “gap” between the levels of success reached by students from different economic, cultural and linguistic groups. Students who come from middle and upper income households, or who come from European American and Asian American families, tend to experience one level of outcomes. But schools across the country are struggling to adequately serve low-income students and students from certain demographic groups, including African Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders and American Indians. Furthermore, student at the urban and rural extremes can face additional challenges. These discrepancies have plagued our educational system for generations – but have greater urgency today, as higher percentages of American children are negatively impacted by these gaps.

Source: OSPI, August 2014
Source: OSPI, August 2014

In the end, the gap is not a question of what ethnicity we are, what language we speak at home, or the economic well-being of our families. These are just the outward variables we use to measure it. Rather, the gap is a nagging reminder that a nation which values equality - which professes to be a place where each person's success is measured by her effort - is in fact a place where tremendous inequities exist; where our children do not have equal access to the resources and experiences that will help them realize their full potential. The achievement/opportunity gap is not only an educational issue. It is a civil rights issue and an important indicator of the nation's economic future. It tells us whether and how we are investing in the children who could be our future scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators, lawmakers, businesspeople and artists.


Portrait of a School

First graders sit on a colorful carpet, clustered in a half circle. One child stands at the board with a pointer in her hand. In an activity repeated across the country, she points to the numbers on a calendar, in order. In this process, the children practice number sequencing and the child upfront works on one-to-one correspondence, even as the children develop their concept of days and months of the years. These are all critical skills for the little guys – rolled into a classic primary classroom activity. But today there is an additional layer of learning happening at Neah Bay: the children are counting in the Makah language.

Neah Bay Elementary School does not fit into prescribed categories very easily. The school shares a campus with the middle/high school on a parcel of land in the center of the village which was donated by one of the historic families of Neah Bay. Though it is situated on a reservation, it is not a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, but rather a public school that is part of the Cape Flattery District and woven into the Washington state educational system. Currently serving about 160 students in kindergarten through 5th grade, at least 90% of students have Makah heritage with small populations of Latino and European American students. Over 65% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indicator of family income.

Source: OSPI, August 2014

Near the entrance, the walls and cases of the school are filled with banners and plaques for outstanding growth and achievement, including state and national awards. But as you go farther down the halls, these awards give way to the daily acknowledgements of children reaching milestones in math and literacy, celebrated in vibrant rainbow-hued arches of certificates that shimmer down the hall like the scales of a dragon. On whiteboards and in the mouths of both students and teachers, there is a common vocabulary of achievement – hinging on terms like “Growth Mindset,” “Learning Targets” and “Success Indicators.”

Data from various assessments bears the fruit of this unified sense of mission and action. For example, mid-elementary literacy skills are an important indicator for future school success. While about 60% of Washington’s fourth graders are meeting writing standards, 91% of Neah Bay’s fourth graders have reached or exceeded standard measurements. The school surpasses state averages in math and science as well as reading and writing.

Source: OSPI, August 2014

These achievements are doubly impressive considering that the state's numbers for low income or American Indian students are even lower than the overall average. In other words, the Neah Bay learning community is succeeding where other communities are categorically underserving entire demographic groups.

Thirteen certificated educators serve the student body. They include classroom teachers, a counselor and a handful of specialists. In an era when schools struggle to recruit and retain quality educators, over half of Neah Bay’s teachers have completed a master’s degree; developing deep history at the school over a number of years. Para-professional staff, many with community connections, provide additional support.

And then there was 15 years ago. The outcomes at Neah Bay were very different. The school experienced incredible instability.

“We had a lot of turnover, not just in teachers, but also in administration,” explains Principal Alice Murner. “It was difficult, not only on staff, but kids and families…to have a different [administrator] who was trying to relearn the whole system.”

An ever-changing staff meant there was no continuity in terms of instructional approach, school climate, expectations, discipline or communications with families. In a community where families have been present for generations, a teacher or principal who might only be around for a year or two can hardly become a galvanizing educational leader. Without consistency, students are constantly adjusting to new teaching styles and both academic and behavioral expectations are continually in flux.

Not surprisingly, a school with excessive turnover becomes highly fractured real estate, where growing cracks swallow up children – both their accomplishments and their challenges. Student scores reflected this fractured environment: while a large majority of students now excel, only a sliver of this same group of students met basic standards in the past.

So what changed? How did the school turn around?

There is no one factor that altered the course of Neah Bay Elementary. The effort involved advancement in several areas, including community-building, leadership, academic reform and culturally responsive practice. While many of the details are particular to the story of this school and community, the areas of change are fairly universal.


It Takes a Village

There is a wise saying which has been reduced to a cliché: “It takes a village to raise a child.” But, in the case of Neah Bay, there actually is a village – and a good deal of it is focused on helping raise the next generation.

“We have families here, not just children,” explains counselor Carol Turner as she describes the deep network of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and parents that make for long running relationships between the school and the families of Neah Bay. The phrase not only describes the multiple degrees of contact with longtime resident families; it also describes a philosophy of interaction. Carol’s observation plays out many times across the school year as the teachers, administrators and staff talk to – and hear from – the families of students they serve.

“The families just seem to pass through my classroom,” shares 3rd grade teacher Joelle Sanders. “At the new [school] year I don’t feel like I have new kids. I feel like I have the old families and just different family members. It makes it easier for me to become a team with my family and my student.”

Whether it’s called “home-school connection,” “community/parent involvement” or a host of other terms, the building of solid bonds between school, family and community serves as a cornerstone to school effectiveness. When educators, families and students are all on the same page, learners experience an integrated web of both expectations and support. This is the village-approach realized, where everyone understands a common goal and works toward it. Neah Bay, like its fellow Pathways Award-winning schools, Southgate Elementary, Toppenish High School and Lincoln Center are places where relationships with students and families are deep multi-dimensional and multi-year connections.

“I’m in constant contact with [the students’] parents,” says Joelle. “If they’re doing great, or not so great, I call. Quite often.” The means of Neah Bay’s on-going contact are quite conventional among elementary schools: phone calls, visits, family events, informal run-ins. The difference lies in the depth and consistency of the interaction. The fact that principal Alice Murner likes to stay in the loop helps tighten the connection.

The staff’s commitment to maintaining contact is part of the puzzle, but the families and community own the other half. “I’ve worked at school districts where you have to have a dinner or do something to pull people in, just to come to Open House or to parent conferences,” says Carol. “Here we have like 80 or 90% participation in parent conferences, without any of the enticement to come.”

In addition, each class holds regular family hours which vary in focus from math to language arts. These can be held in the evenings or during the lunch hour. “It gives us time to interact with the kids,” explains one father, “Not only our children but the class as a whole.”

The partnerships also extend beyond individual families to the community near and far. The Makah Nation actively advocates for the kids and the Tribal Council provides incentives for reaching learning goals. The school partners with the Makah Cultural Center to provide certificated instruction in traditional language and culture, and an alliance with the University of Washington Pipeline Project creates an exciting opportunity for intermediate students to visit a college campus and work cooperatively on projects with university student mentors.

You have to have the family connection. If you don’t have the connection with the families and the kids, everything else doesn’t matter.

At the center of this growing network of collaboration are the families. “If you don’t have the connection with the families and the kids, everything else doesn’t matter.” For Principal Alice Murner, linking with families is not an enhancement or pleasantry; it is central to the mission of the school. For a community that has experienced multiple disconnects with the school system – culturally and academically – and endured countless years of revolving door staffing, a proximate, stable school where you and your community are welcome is a hard-fought accomplishment. “The parents and community come first. That’s what we’re here for, right? This is their school. It’s the kids’ school. It belongs to the community and that’s number one.”


It’s just after 8am on a drizzly Friday morning and Ms. Murner is helping propel student achievement –    with a kazoo. Neah Bay, like many schools, holds     regular assemblies to build community, share information and celebrate accomplishments. But this celebratory ritual symbolizes an important aspect of how Neah Bay Elementary works. In it, we see the mixture of serious intention, care and playfulness which the staff brings to each school day.

A dedicated group of educators and community leaders has worked, step by step, to transform an inconsistent program and unstable staff into a tight-knit community of teachers and learners. In an era when the educational world is highly volatile – including high teacher and administrator turnover – long term commitment by key staff has made a huge difference at Neah Bay.

Alice Murner graduated from Neah Bay High School and went off to college and work, returning to the village with her own young family. Switching from a technology career to the classroom, she experienced firsthand the effects of turnover and inconsistency. After four years of teaching in this environment, she decided to make a change.

“I’m the kind of person in the building that would see a need and then would just try to address it. So I went back to school to get my administration certificate, so that we could stop that constant turnover of administrators, and at least start in a positive direction.”

Neah Bay was experiencing an issue that plagues education in general but hits especially hard those schools serving low income students and students of color. High turnover – particularly of teachers still new to the career – has a huge effect on these schools. In fact, a 2014 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education indicates that high-poverty schools must deal with a teacher turnover rate 50% higher than their more affluent counterparts.

Retaining an administrator who was willing to stay long enough to see reforms come to fruition, along with a group of teachers equally committed over time, were crucial steps in Neah Bay’s face off with the Achievement and Opportunity Gaps.

Source: Data provided by Neah Bay Elementary

Curbing staff instability was a positive first step, but many others were to follow. “The first thing that was really important for us was consistency from classroom to classroom,” said Principal Murner. “Not just in curriculum, but management…some consistent strategies we taught all the kids.” In order for academic improvements to gain traction, consistent community norms and expectations needed to take shape, even as staff was establishing new levels of trust. “A big achievement was being able to have our families coming into our school and feeling like it was their school.”

As staffing and norms have become more consistent, leadership is defined through academics: knowing how kids are doing and what steps are being taken to pave individual paths to success. “She is more hands-on than any principal I’ve worked with,” explains Carol Turner, who also alludes to the fact that Principal Murner is so involved with the particulars that at one time, she knew reading scores for just about every third grader.

Alice would be the first to point out that the advances at the school are a shared effort and a shared success. But, there is no question that consistent, strategic leadership is an important factor.


As a nation, we tend to look at academic challenges and crises in very serious, clinical terms. We listen for the jarring statistics in the news and look to experts to give sober analyses of what the problems are, and how we should fix them. Visiting Neah Bay, one is reminded that the most valuable resources for lifting achievement are the students themselves. When they become the leading advocates and practitioners of change, exciting things are happening. There is a visceral feeling of optimism.

It’s quite common to hear administrators or even teachers employ educational vocabulary. It’s something else altogether when the kids are the ones to break down strategies. In their own words, students confidently explain school-wide systems for academic goals and measurements:

“The Learning Target is to be able to know how to do a problem…the Success Indicator is just showing that you meet the goal,” explains one fourth grader, while another simply states, “I’ll know what to do and what it should end up like.”

The students are abuzz with the language of learning. They use the same terms as the staff to explain what is expected of them and how they can demonstrate their learning.

The kids have really taken ownership of not just the building and the school, but of their own learning in particular

“The kids have really taken ownership of not just the building and the school, but of their own learning in particular,” explains the principal. This sense of owning one’s personal academic story is crucial in the creation of lifelong learners. These are skills that go beyond any single subject or class, but which will serve these children throughout their lives.

Creating common vocabulary and routines for achievement are crucial. Students have a predictable framework that they can take from one subject to another, one teacher to another, one year to the next. In order to be the drivers of their own growth, they must be able to understand expectations and goals, and communicate effectively about their academic accomplishments, challenges and aspirations. Students are partners in their learning; intimately involved in their own goal-setting and assessment.

In addition to providing consistent tools, the school actively challenges students to shift their self-perception, in order to make space for the hard work of growth. One might expect to hear staff talk about a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset,” but it’s exciting to hear 4th grader, Colby, explain the difference: “It’s a mindset that lets you think more, and it doesn’t say that I want to give up on the first try.”

Establishing a common vocabulary and building positive self-images are important ingredients in Neah Bay’s recipe for increasing achievement, but structural changes are an important part of the mix as well.

Chief among these has been creating a strategy of effective communication and collaboration among teachers, administrators and other staff. The years-long effort to stabilize the teaching staff has gone hand in hand with increasing collaboration and consistency across the school. Each teacher has room to bring their own expertise and enthusiasm, but there is also a common framework of instruction and assessment that holds the larger whole together.

“The best thing about this place is our ability to all work together,” says 5th grade teacher Seth Vanzant. Collaboration happens on both the front and back end of the instructional process. The staff works together to design strategies, but also gathers regularly to evaluate how things are going and offer support to each other. The sense of collaboration extends between teachers, but also between teachers and administration.

Teachers point out that another important factor is class size. Class size varies widely across Washington State. In fact, elementary classrooms can have up to 27 kids and still be in compliance for funding, but there are larger classes across the state, depending on various factors. At Neah Bay, there is a teacher-student ratio of 14 to 1.

“In the bigger schools where I had anywhere from 25–70 kids, with a multi-age class, it was really difficult to stay on top of how the kids were doing,” explains teacher Joelle Sanders. Her first year at Neah Bay, she had less than 15 students. But, to keep such tight ratios between students and certificated teachers has a price: there are no specialists for art, music or PE. The classroom teachers themselves must teach these subjects.

One of the most pivotal structures supporting the school’s advances is how it manages the cycle between instruction and assessment. This is a classic recipe for education: identify learning objectives, teach to them, assess what’s been learned, modify instruction accordingly, stir and repeat.

As a nation, we have been very hung up on the assessment step, particularly because official measurement of students’ skills revolves around high stakes standardized tests. The T-word has become a lightning rod for a number of contentious issues in education: How effective is testing as a means of measuring student knowledge and skills? Does it serve all types of students effectively? Should it be used to evaluate or determine compensation for teachers or administrators? Should it affect the ways schools are funded or labelled? Does it drive the curriculum instead of serving it? Does preparing for and administering tests take away from time that could be used for other things?

Neah Bay has developed an effective approach to using testing. Because results from the big statewide tests are only released once a year in the summer, the school conducts additional tests in the fall, winter and spring, plus numerous classroom assessments throughout the year. Is it a lot of testing with a cost in staff and instructional time? Yes. However, Neah Bay’s success lies in its ability to use the data in a way that is quick, routine and collaborative.

“One of the things we do is we really collaborate over interventions. If a kid is not reading well, we look into why and we look into it heavily,” says counselor Carol Turner, explaining how teams of educators will address needs in areas ranging from literacy to math and beyond.

Every week, an intervention team including classroom teachers, the principal, the counselor and a part-time intervention specialist gathers together. One week, the team is focused on grades K-2, and grades 3-5 the following week. So, every two weeks, classroom teachers bring in all their student data, and a roomful of colleagues supports them in shaping strategies for specific student needs.

Explains Mr. Vanzant, “We’re always collecting data on specific skills to see: Did that strategy work? Do we need to change it?” This continuous cycle of measurement, teaching and collaborative problem solving allows teachers to use data effectively with a wide level of support from each other. “It’ll help guide my teaching.”

“If an intervention, after three weeks, is flat lined, then we find a different intervention,” explains Ms. Turner. “It’s a whole team of us that are trying to figure out what’s going on and how we can help, and I think the teachers feel really supported by that team.”

In a time when there is great concern that data trumps students and teachers, this school is focused on using data as a tool to serve students and provide support for teachers.

The sense of kids taking ownership of their personal journey of learning is not lost on this process. According to one 3rd grader, “I’m going to put on my knowledge from what our teachers taught us and from the school, and I’m going to put it into this booklet.”


Culture & Heritage

A single voice calls out and is answered by a choral response accompanied by the cadence of frame drums. Black vests with red piping or white cloaks with red fringe cover Seahawks jerseys and trendy tops. In a unified movement, oars begin to symbolically ripple on the right side of an exacting procession. The fifth and fourth graders are preparing dances and songs.

“I love singing in Makah,” explains 4th grader, Bella. Referred to as “culture class,” all students at Neah Bay spend two sessions per week learning Makah language and culture. These activities, taught by certificated teachers through a partnership with the Makah Cultural & Research Center, might be integrated into conventional school activities – like using Makah language to count the days of the month – or they might explore various aspects of folklore including storytelling or dance. Sometimes students build small models of longhouses and canoes, other times they read texts in Makah to learn about traditional activities like preparing spring salmon.

Sitting in the heart of the Makah nation, over 90% of the school’s population has some degree of heritage connected to the tribe that has occupied this very spot for countless generations. Less than a mile away is a monument marking the spot where the continually inhabited village of Neah Bay was host to the first non-native settlement in what would become Washington State. The Makah are the generations-old stewards of the waters where the Pacific meets the inland Salish Sea of what is now the U.S. and Canada.

Yet, for many generations, Makah children underwent experiences similar to indigenous communities across the Americas: they were expected to leave their culture at the schoolhouse door.

Even after intentionally degrading practices of the legendary Indian boarding schools came to a close, indigenous culture, like many other “minority” cultures around the U.S., suffered from indifference or marginalization. To this day, it is not uncommon to find the culture of these communities relegated to theme days, 4th grade state history (as if they are not still living cultures), or sidebars in history textbooks.

Well, so what?

What business does a school have to focus on culture and heritage twice a week when there are so many other pressing academic challenges and goals? The kids have answers:

Culture a line of study that is valuable not only in its own draws out the learner inside each child.

“My favorite thing is the cultural time, because our culture teacher is able to make culture fun and incorporate other skills into our culture,” explains a 3rd grader.

Like music, art, theater, or other subject areas that are often deemed “non-essential,” culture class is a catalyst for engaged learning. It is a line of study that is valuable not only in its own right, but because it draws out the learner inside each child.

In the case of culture class, it goes even deeper. In the words of a fifth grader, “If we didn’t know our heritage we wouldn’t be anybody.” Of course, the children are on to something: improving cultural relevance of education has been a theme across the nation’s schools. Here in Washington, a study on the characteristics of high-achieving schools named cultural competency of staff and culturally responsive teaching as important attributes. Makah culture and language classes help make learning resonant in this community – and situate the students and their learning as the protagonists in an effort to carry on a deep and rich heritage.

In addition, these studies have a ripple affect across the curriculum. Fifth graders draw connections to science by studying the shell density of mussels in the coastal waters off Neah Bay. Fourth graders use a grand legacy of storytelling as a springboard for reading and writing.

“I love teaching writing. My students have great ideas,” declares teacher Linda Johnson. “I love it when their stories come out onto the paper, and they come out not just in narrative form, but also in essays. When they add details to their writing, they fill them with figurative language or small anecdotes of ideas…This community had a whole past history filled with storytelling.”

“Storytelling is like our way of speaking Makah,” Amara, one of Linda’s students, clarifies.

On a national level, there is a long way to go in recognizing the power and value of heritage and language, particularly among those students on the downside of the Achievement Gap. Frequently, non-mainstream cultural perspectives or home languages other than English are seen as deficits to learning rather than assets they can be.

For its part, Neah Bay is embracing these legacies. The Makah Cultural Center is publishing its own books in the Makah language, bridging literacy skills across languages.


Read and listen to a book in Makah

  • Click on the orange play button to hear the page read in Makah.
  • Use the "Next" and "Previous" buttons at the top of the page to turn the pages.

Courtesy of the Makah Cultural Center

Teachers are looking for cultural launch pads for learning across the curriculum: “I think the kids come to school already having a background on how a story should flow,” says Linda. “And so when it’s their turn to hold the pencil and write, they’re ready to go.”

Seamlessly connecting her comfort with storytelling with her own experience and identity, 4th grader Shila simply states, “When I write, I like to write about our community and what happens in my life. And when I write, it’s like talking to my friends.”


Looking Forward

In Neah Bay, an entire community of teachers, children and families works daily to realize a brighter vision of learning. In building a bridge to span gaps in opportunity and achievement, they have used pillars including strong school-community connections, academic reforms, steadfast leadership, professional collaboration and cultural heritage.

But, the road ahead has plenty of challenges. Some are typical: budget considerations and the cost-benefit analysis that goes into every expenditure. Others are particular, such the challenge of shaping learners who are at home in the intimate world of Neah Bay as much as they are contenders and citizens of the global economy.

A major challenge is connectivity. As much of the world continues to interact “in the cloud” and via mobile devices, Internet access is a critical issue in remote communities. More and more instructional content, testing programs and teacher professional development resources is moving to the web. The entire K-12 campus at Neah Bay has only 3 megabits of bandwidth. All 150 computers at the school rely on an internet connection no greater than the one powering a typical U.S. home. In other words, if one class runs a YouTube video, the rest of the entire K-12 campus will not be able to do anything of substance online. New technology and devices are sitting unconnected instead of helping students prepare for 21st century lives. How will access to bandwidth figure in the expansion or closing of educational gaps?

Neah Bay’s story is both particular to its setting, but also instructive to schools across the nation which are working to close gaps of inequity. It is a reminder that closing the Achievement and Opportunity Gaps is a question of local knowledge and leadership, but deeply tied to best practices that transcend any one location.

In any school, we are faced with challenges. We are challenged to create schools where students are the agents of change, not the objects of it; and where educators better connect with diverse communities. We must foster a sense of ownership among students and families, for the learning process and for the building that houses it. We are challenged to create structures that allow teachers to do their best work, supported by each other’s expertise. We need useful tools and measurements that are thoughtfully integrated into daily practice. We need to make room for students to play the leading roles in the story of their advancement. And, we are challenged to ensure that education is culturally resonant, connecting the immediacy of a child’s world with the broader skills and knowledge they need to be global citizens.

One of the greatest challenges for a school like Neah Bay is one of sustainability. Like other schools that have made great strides relatively quickly, it faces the challenge of how to build on the strong foundation it’s created rather than letting it fall into disrepair. Like other outstanding schools, it must confront the issue of how to sustain change even when the change makers move on.

“I always said that I wouldn’t go back in the classroom or retire until somebody’s going to take my position. We don’t want to go back to the turnover. That would be devastating,” says principal Alice Murner. “Somebody has to be willing to step into my shoes and take that responsibility for many years to come.” Education is a team sport best played by successive, dedicated generations.

“You never know,” Alice says pensively, “it might be one of our fifth graders.” Then she laughs.

Little did she know that during an interview the day before a 3rd grader quietly proclaimed, “When I grow up I want to work here. Because it’s where I learned and where I made all my friends.”


Pathways to Excellence made possible by:

Special Thanks to Students, Staff & Families of Neah Bay Elementary School


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Unless otherwise noted, all graph data comes from the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, accessed August 2014.

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