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Rookie Principal Transforms Failing Elementary School

February 2, 2016
It was not the kind of assignment most brand-new principals would want. In 2011, Lakeridge Elementary in Renton was identified as chronically underperforming. When Jessica Calabrese-Granger became principal, Lakeridge was in the lowest 5 percent of public schools in the state, which meant it was among only 27 schools in Washington State that were put under the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program.
Turned out, that’s just what Calabrese-Granger wanted: the challenge of turning Lakeridge Elementary around. Also, as a rookie, she simply didn’t know how hard that would be. “If we wanted something different for the kids we would have to do things differently,” she says. “So we did and it was a dead run from the start.”
Calabrese-Granger’s story is one of transformation. It's a story of what can happen when a willing and open-minded staff rolls up its sleeves for children and for an untested, but visionary, leader.
Grants require change
Lakeridge had an opening for a principal because the U.S. Department of Education grant required the district to replace the principal and much of the school’s staff. The plan also mandated that Lakeridge have longer school days and pick a research-based model for improvement. Why would the school go along with that? Because Lakeridge was offered a $2.7 million federal grant to make the changes and given three years to turn test scores around.
The first thing Calabrese-Granger did was to hire 11 new teachers. With those teachers, she employed a carrot and stick. The carrot was a $1,000 federal incentive bonus that teachers at Lakeridge got if they met the goal of getting their students up to grade level. The stick was that Calabrese-Granger hired teachers on a contract that would not be renewed if their students didn’t meet the growth mark.
Teachers and students at Lakeridge Elementary had their work cut out for them. Of the school’s 420 children, nearly 90 percent are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. One-third of the students don’t speak English at home. Somali is the most common native language, followed by Spanish.
Another difficulty for kids at Lakeridge is the mobility rate — they are much more likely than students elsewhere to be moved in or out of school during the academic year.
Undaunted, the new crew at Lakeridge was up for change, and Calabrese-Granger could hardly stoke their fires fast enough. “At the end of the first year I remember thinking, ‘I’m not tired because this is hard. I’m tired because it’s hard to keep up with how fast these teachers are willing to go for change,’” she says. 
How change happened
Among the improvement models offered under the grant, Lakeridge chose the option that added 30 minutes to each school day and five days to the school year. The principal, teachers, math and reading coaches used that time to develop a curriculum and assessments tailored to its new mandate of bringing all students to grade level within three years.
The teachers met every week at school for professional development labs led by math and reading coaches. Math was the main focus, using a program hammered out in consultation with the math education department at the University of Washington. It was an unusually open process.
“Teaching typically is a private event,” says math coach Terese Lind. “Teachers don’t get to watch other teachers teach.” But that’s just what Lakeridge did. Teachers came up with new methods in labs, tried them out on small groups of students and incorporated them immediately into practice.
Assessments were not just based on standardized testing but also by teachers meeting with students individually to gauge how they work out math problems — or reading — and to offer each child a way to improve. When an approach didn’t work, Calabrese-Granger changed it right away.
“Our focus right now is making sure that kids understand how numbers work, why things in math come together the way they do,” says third grade teacher Therese Tse. In class, Tse asks students for more than the “right answer” — she has them explain how they came to the conclusion. 
“No kid leaves here thinking they are not a learner,” says Calabrese-Granger. “We chose early on that we would focus on conceptual understanding. There were faster ways to get test scores up but that was never our goal.”
Making the grade
Because they took that slower approach, the expectation was that test scores would take time to turn around. “We said to ourselves over and over, ‘It’s not gonna be good the first year. Don’t get your hopes up,’” says Calabrese-Granger. “And the very first year we saw significant gains.”
After just two years, fifth grade math scores increased by 35 percent and reading scores went up 25 percent. A year ago, the Superintendent of Public Instruction made a surprise visit to Lakeridge Elementary to announce that the school had jumped from the bottom 5 percent statewide to the top 50 percent of elementary schools in the state. The Superintendent also announced that Lakeridge was taken off the list of the state’s underperforming schools.
This is a source of pride for Calabrese-Granger, but also a concern. The challenge now is to keep improving without federal grant money. Ever optimistic, Calabrese-Granger believes Lakeridge’s upward momentum is sustainable because they spent the grant money on things that will last.
“We built capacity in teachers. They are better teachers and we have better curriculum. Those aren’t things you have to buy over and over again,” she says.
Another strength is that Calabrese-Granger is now a more experienced principal, not that her freshman effort was any slouch. Perhaps math coach Terese Lind says it best: “To be able to walk in as a rookie principal and transform a school, is nothing short of amazing!”


About Golden Apple Moments

The Golden Apple Moments program honors educators, programs and schools making a positive difference in Washington State education. Since 1992, award recipients have been featured in special segments that air on public television stations across the state and online. The KCTS 9 Golden Apple Moments are made possible through funding from PEMCO Insurance.

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Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey

Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

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Or is it? Is there an effort being made to duplicate this? Is there the typical 'it's my territory' resistance from other principals? Is it the case of the 'exception proves the rule'... as in the 'exceptional' principal shows that most principals are not 'exceptional'... in spite of extended MA education, expanding administration at all levels etc, etc, etc, .... where is the 'weak link(s)' in the whole system that make this Renton principal so 'exceptional'... ? From my own experience as a parent of students, I can guess that it is the minimal expectations placed on teachers and principals, along with the minimal reward for exceptional results. As you can tell, this story makes me more pessimistic than optimistic. Give this 'rookie' time and she'll get tired of bucking the union-backed deadweight (deadweight that gives fuel to the fire of the private voucher industry).

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