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Pathways to Excellence

Pathways & Pipelines: Successful Transitions From Middle School to High School

It is 7:45 a.m. in West Seattle and educator Roxana Amaral is working on boosting graduation rates for the Class of 2021. Though this type of work often happens in a classroom, teacher meeting or parent conference, she isn’t in any of those places. She is in a hallway, half way up a stairwell.

“Good morning! Five minutes to get to class on time. Good Morning!”

Roxana Amaral greeting students at Denny International Middle School

There is the scuffle of sneakers, a strong showing of Seahawks gear, the brushing sound of raincoats and backpacks and a pageantry of brightly colored hijabs. Amaral is not the first staff person the students have encountered that morning at Denny International Middle School. A team of Americorps members, in the distinctive red jackets of City Year, welcomed the students as they entered the school building. Communities in Schools case managers are at the check-in table that receives late arrivals — ready to support students with extenuating circumstances around transportation or other issues that may have impacted their ability to get to school.

With close to 70% of students receiving free/reduced lunch and an incredible mix of races, cultures and languages, Denny is at the center of the effort to close the opportunity gap that impacts students along socio-economic, racial and linguistic lines.

While it may seem like a minor piece of the puzzle, the “attendance funnel” at Denny figures into a much larger and successful set of strategies that focuses on preparing the highly diverse students of this neighborhood for success in middle school, high school and beyond. It symbolizes the broader effort across West Seattle, from the elementary schools, to Denny International Middle School, to Chief Sealth International High School and beyond, to create a clear and open pathway to achievement.

Denny principal Jeff Clark references the mission as “academic excellence for every scholar, meaning every single kid in our global village.” But to accomplish this requires an orchestrated effort that connects what happens in and out of the classroom from one level of schooling to the next.

Denny Middle School principal Jeff Clark talks with two students in the hallway. He believes that they've made a lot of progress, but have a lot more to do.

“We’ve made some great progress, and I think we have a lot more to do,” he explains. While outcomes are improving for students on the west side, they do not yet reflect the full potential of each scholar. But, change is coming and it’s embodied in the data that suggests that the discrepancies are narrowing and opportunity is increasing.

When looking at how to create more equitable outcomes for all students, we rightly look at what happens in classrooms and school buildings, but what about the journey from one classroom to another or from one school to another? Bridging the opportunity gap is about building strong academic pillars. But those pillars need to be connected by a road and suspension cables — that’s what forms the pathways which lead students from one experience to the next, one school to the next, one phase of life to the next.

This question of pathways — sometimes referred to as “pipelines” — has drawn greater focus as communities acknowledge the fact that education is a journey of the whole child, not just a series of snapshots as reflected on report cards. It’s a question of considering all the variables and policies that shape a child’s educational experience.

Denny International Middle School and Chief Sealth High School share similar student and family demographics, with most Denny students progressing on to Chief Sealth. They also share a co-located campus. Each school has its distinct footprint, but the two are physically integrated, side by side. But it’s more than adjoined buildings that link the two schools: a system being practiced at each school — and spanning across both of them — is widening the pathway to graduation and beyond. 

The ABCs of Middle School

Denny focuses on three areas of growth for each of its students: Attendance, Behavior and Coursework – the ABCs

“We work on increasing academic achievement, and we use three indicators,” explains Amaral: Attendance, Behavior and Coursework, or what the Denny staff refers to as the ABCs. “If students are not succeeding in one or more of those, their chances of graduating from high school and attending college drops significantly.”

“We support kids in helping them to remove any barriers that they have for their learning,” reinforces Principal Clark. That means having a number of programs working in concert to support every aspect of each young scholar’s experience. So, when looking at how to turn today’s sixth grader into tomorrow’s college-bound senior, Denny staff work in the classroom, across the school and with families to cover all the ABCs.

Academically, a range of programs support students with individualized attention, from math tutoring to extended learning time inside and outside of the regular schedule. Additionally, the staff has made significant changes to its grading practices.


Source: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI Report Card)

In conventional grading practice, teachers give an assignment and then evaluate students with a grade and percentage. Denny educators have reflected on what, if anything, that percentage really means.

“The points mean what? It’s not true authentic feedback,” explains Clark, “Instead of saying ‘79%’ we say ‘We’re working on these three components of writing this paper, and this is how you did on each of them.’”

This approach, called “standards-based grading,” focuses on the actual skills and knowledge a student can demonstrate, rather than shaping advancement based on abstract percentages. Rather than collect an assignment, grade it and move on, Denny teachers drill down on those particular skills in question and re-teach them as necessary until a student can show some level of mastery.

Denny partners with a number of organizations to enhance the experience of young scholars, from tutoring and case management to co-curricular activities.

The school works equally hard outside the classroom to support students on issues ranging from behavior and attendance to basic needs. But it cannot do it alone. To address those additional issues, it looks to partnerships with community organizations. The City Year corps members who greet students every morning function as “near peers” who can relate to students closer to their own level, but who can also introduce them to the college experience. Communities in Schools provides support around the basics, such as clothing, food and transportation. Additional community partners range from Johns Hopkins University to Diplomas Now and El Centro de la Raza.

But, one of the reasons Denny is such a critical part of building a pathway to excellence is not what it does for its students while they are there, but how it prepares them to leave.

Transitioning to High School

Chief Sealth and Denny are co-located on the same West Seattle campus.

Building a successful pathway requires constructing interlocking roads. One school can perform miracles, but if there is no preparation for that work to continue, students can easily become lost or discouraged. Transitions between schools are especially delicate times in any student’s career, let alone in that of students facing the opportunity gap. When crossing from 8th to 9th grades, the risk of disengagement or dropout is very high.

“Statistics have shown that when we lose kids, we lose them in that transition and we lose them during that year,” explains Chief Sealth principal Aida Fraser-Hammer. “The challenge is meeting the needs of all our kids, whether it be socio-economic needs or whether it be academic needs.”

Staff from both schools come together regularly in “riser” meetings to discuss the needs of individual students — especially those who are most vulnerable — to help them make a successful transition into high school. Additionally, the schools collaborate in a number of ways, both formal and informal.

Staff from Denny and Chief Sealth, along with partners such as Communities In Schools, discuss the particular needs of individual students as they transition to high school.

“It’s all about relationships,” says Amaral, emphasizing that kids need to see caring adults advocating for them. “It’s very important that students see that we’re working together … helping them connect with the services and supports they need at Chief Sealth to be successful.”

Making sure students connect with vital services — from tutoring to mentoring, from healthcare to case management — is one part of the strategy. But it’s also important to ensure that students have activities and personal connections that span across different school settings.

‘Proyecto Saber’ is one of many programs that spans across both Denny and Sealth. It provides culturally relevant support to help young scholars advance academically.

A range of academic and co-curricular programs spans middle and high school experiences for West Seattle kids. From a rigorous dual-language program in Spanish, to a growing set of courses in Mandarin, from jazz to mariachi, young scholars can continue their growth from one school to the next. Importantly, the two schools share faculty for these programs. This creates a consistency of activities and ensures ongoing connections to caring adults who work across both settings.

Dual-language immersion is a program where students learn core subjects — such as language arts or social studies — in a language other than English. In that way, they advance academically across all subjects even as they become functionally bilingual. For schools like Denny and Chief Sealth, with high numbers of English Language Learners (ELLs) who speak a different home language, creating such a program in Spanish — the most prevalent home language — is a way to recognize language skills and develop them rather than discourage them.

“Research tells us that when kids are really strong in two languages, the languages support each other,” explains Denny’s Principal Clark. “Kids become strong writers in Spanish, they also become stronger writers in English. The same goes for reading and speaking.”

“We started with 13 students in the 6th grade,” recalls teacher Leticia Clausen. Now there are dual-immersion programs that form a web across West Seattle, with a number of elementary schools offering the program to their youngest students, advancing through Denny, where middle schoolers can earn high school language credits, and culminating in courses at Chief Sealth. In addition to academic skills building, the program provides cultural affirmation.

“It’s important for our kids who are native speakers, as well as kids who want to be fluent,” argues Chief Seatlh’s Principal Fraser-Hammer.

Spanish immersion and Mandarin language programs span both middle school and high school levels, providing students the opportunity to deeply develop skills and sustain relationships.

Both schools have also built up a program in Mandarin in partnership with the Confucius Institute, which splits its operations between the University of Washington and Chief Sealth. Chinese language and cultural study extends from middle to high school, supported with a combination of resident and visiting teachers.

If programs supporting diverse needs and interests are the stones in the pathway to excellence, the personalized relationships with caring adults and older mentors are the mortar. Marcus Pimpleton, himself a graduate of Denny, teaches music at both schools.

“I think that kids need consistency,” he says. “Students need relationships that are strong and once they have those they benefit from those relationships being maintained.” Pimpleton’s program provides students with a long-term connection to school. The music program serves as a touchstone as they move through various schools and grades. “We outreach to our feeder schools and we’ve walked those kids from 4th grade to the University of Washington.”

The music program in West Seattle creates an important touchstone for growth and connection, from elementary school all the way through high school graduation.

In fact, the music program continues to grow and reflect the diverse perspectives of the students it serves. Denny and Sealth also have a combined mariachi program.

Chief Sealth teacher Noah Zeichner describes how the program resonates with students, not only in musical terms: “I’ve seen many students go through the mariachi class who find their relevance in school through the experience. ... There are several students over the past few years who likely graduated in part due to being engaged through the program.”

The mariachi program, shared between Denny and Chief Sealth, is the only one of its kind in western Washington.

Aside from various programs that students can opt into, such as music and language programs, there are also activities for all incoming 9th graders which help them make the transition socially and emotionally, as well as academically.

Book It Repertory Theatre, which specializes in making connections between literature and theatre, has a long-term residency at Chief Sealth and focuses on walking with new 9th graders through the transition to high school. Students analyze, write and ultimately produce original poetry. The project culminates in spoken-word performances where students organize and present work, both their own and that of other students.

“It’s a safe place. They can be free to say ‘My life sucks,’ or whatever it is, in their poetic fashion,” says Principal Fraser-Hammer. But, she emphasizes that in addition to self-expression and belonging, the program has other benefits because it also affords students a chance to develop critical analysis skills, learn how to work in a team and experience the satisfaction that comes with public performance.

Burhan Farrah, on the right, works with the growing Somali community of West Seattle, building strong connections between the schools, families and community.

And, it is not only students who receive support through the transition between middle school and high school. Staff works closely with families. One of the greatest examples of this is the work of Burhan Farah. Ten years ago, the East African population of West Seattle was very small, but it has grown rapidly and Somali is now the second largest non-English home language spoken, after Spanish. Burhan provides a vital cultural and linguistic connection between Somali families. She splits her energies between Denny and Chief Sealth.

Amaral at Denny is quick to point out the value of  staff who can walk through the education system with families who are new to the country: “She knows firsthand the experience of being a staff member here from a different country, and learning all the important aspects of school, and supporting families as they are in middle school and transition into high school.”

A Widening Pathway

Once students become part of the Chief Sealth community, their pathway widens even further through a rich array of programs designed to provide academic and pre-professional options.  Some of these include blended classes, global leadership, the International Baccalaureate program and several Academies, including Finance and Tourism & Hospitality.

Three years ago, Chief Sealth began blending honors and non-honors programs into the same classes. What this means is that a single class in math, language arts, or another subject will include students working toward non-honors competencies alongside others who are trying to meet the higher expectations of an honors program. Students receive the same curriculum, but with different levels of rigor.

Honors and non-honors students study side by side at Chief Sealth, which makes honors classes more accessible for students who might be on the fence about taking on new challenges.

“The teacher does not choose who is going to be challenged at the honors level and who is not going to be challenged,” clarifies Fraser-Hammer. “The student opts into that honors designation by learing what the expectations are and making that choice.”

Such a move is not without a healthy dose of debate. As communities examine this model they consider a number of questions: How effectively will the teacher differentiate instruction for each student?  Will non-honors students get what they need? Will honors students get the caliber they want?

But, the change is proving essential in widening pathways to excellence and closing the opportunity gap precisely for the reasons it causes consternation: By placing everyone in the same room, old assumptions about one group or the other must be thrown out. Not only because all the students are side by side, but also because the same students can move fluidly between the two, and the old honors and non-honors groups break down into one.

Most importantly, it makes it much easier for a student to “test drive” an honors program and then simply opt in. It creates greater upward flow into more rigorous study — this is essential for populations that historically have had little representation in the most demanding academic programs.

As one student explains, “My language arts teacher influenced me to take honors, which I did, which was challenging. But I worked my way through it, which is good.”

Another 9th grader describes how she did not take honors before because it seemed intimidating, but once she could easily observe and try it, her attitude changed: “Because of trying, my first time in honors with language arts I’m trying slowly to get into other classes that are honors.”

“I am the oldest child in my house. I wanted to show my siblings that there’s always a reason to challenge yourself,” shares another.

Chief Sealth offers a range of academic options, from language immersion to blended classes, International Baccalaureate and pre-professional academies, to ensure every scholar has a place to excel.

The pathway widens even further as participation in the honors program helps pave the way to even greater opportunities. Students can move into the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, which provides them with internationally recognized academic credit.

“The curriculum that we’re doing at Sealth is the same curriculum that a student in Australia might be using,” a junior explains. “I think there’s some intrigue in that, because there’s a sense of global community knowing that you’re studying the same things that these students from other parts of the world are studying.”

In addition to blended classes and the IB program, Chief Sealth has found success in its Academies of Finance, and Tourism & Hospitality. These two year programs offer students a head start in professional fields — reinforcing classroom learning with internships, job shadowing and mentorships.

“Up to the last year we’ve had a 100% success rate. And that’s what I’m most proud of, is that results are in the students.” says Gary Perkins, who spent two decades in the financial services industry prior to teaching. “They’re all graduating and they all have plans beyond high school.”

A Beautiful and Healthy Way

Back to the hallway at Denny International Middle School in the early morning: It’s exciting to think about all of the possibilities that await the scrambling 6th graders that Amaral ushers to class. Indeed the educators at Denny and Chief Sealth are ensuring that there is a wide and varied pathway that starts in this hallway and continues to many possible places and achievements.

In some educational settings, the incredible diversity of cultures, languages and socio-economic situations that make up West Seattle might be seen as a set of challenges — a trial to be overcome — but what is so exciting about the community built around Denny and Chief Sealth is that this incredibly complex reality is seen as an asset and a cause for celebration.

Denny and Chief Sealth embrace the incredible diversity of cultures, languages and perspectives as a valuable component to preparing 21st century scholars.

Time and again, this group of educators looks at their students and sees possibility and promise where others might see complication. They celebrate it and build on it. Whether it is in creating a language immersion program that recognizes that English Language Learners have an asset, not a deficit, in their home language; or a global leadership program that builds upon the diverse perspectives of children of both native-born and immigrant families, they are preparing their students for success.

This outlook is not lost on the students themselves. As one junior describes it, “One of the things that I think’s really great about Sealth is that we have a really diverse student body, and that we have students with a whole array of different beliefs and opinions about things, that we’re able to come together in a very beautiful and healthy way.”

There are a wealth of programs that span students’ middle and high school experiences, all mediated through powerful relationships with a team of caring educators.

What better way to prepare students for success in a global, 21st century world than to recognize that they themselves are that world — a community where they can learn to hold differences and similarities, even as they advance toward excellence?

“If we can be here to help [students] become strong scholars as they go through adolescence, and really set them up for success, and do it for every single kid, I believe there’s no greater contribution we could make,” says Denny’s Principal Clark.

“It’s just a thrill, an honor and a privilege of my life.”