“There are four children and two sandwiches. If the children want to share the sandwiches, how much would each child get?”
In the second-grade classroom at Lakeridge Elementary, students quietly work through the problem in notebooks and with fingers. A student with a mop of brown hair shares his answer — two-fourths — that he reached by dividing each sandwich into four parts and then assigning parts to each child.
“Do you agree? Or do you respectfully disagree?” teacher Nicole Brown asks the rest of the class.
A girl wearing a bright purple hijab raises her hand to say that she got a different answer; her process resulted in one-half for each child. Brown then poses additional questions for the students to consider: How are the two answers the same? How are they different?
Lakeridge is one of the most diverse public schools in Washington: Nearly 90 percent of the students are Black, Latino or Asian.
About half of the students speak a language other than English at home, and roughly 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
Lakeridge used to be one of the lowest-achieving schools in Washington
Teachers like Brown make leading these lessons look easy, but the school’s next-level learning environment actually came about through a deep collaboration between Lakeridge and researchers from the University of Washington College of Education. The three-year partnership produced a total transformation for Lakeridge, marking a complete 180 from where the school had previously been.
In the fall of 2010, Lakeridge faced a crisis: They were federally designated as one of the persistently lowest-achieving schools in Washington state. Test scores were in the bottom five percent, meaning that only one in five students could comprehend math at their grade level.
“We were heartbroken,” recalls Brown. “We had been working really hard on reading, and saw scores improve. But then we got the news that it still wasn’t enough.”
0:44 / play interview
When it was first laid out, Jessica [Granger] just kept saying that it’ll be hands-on; you’ll be right there in the classroom coaching, and I didn’t know what that looked like. As we continued to practice, and I saw the changes in the kids’ thinking, I saw that it was really good work to do, so. I’d say I really enjoyed it.
It changed my thinking; I used to love reading, now I love teaching math, actually, more. And the kids learn and grow, I think, from each other, and seeing how different people solve things. And I even learn from them. I tell them every day we’re both coming to teach and learn, so I learn from them just as much as they learn from me.
1:09 / play interview
I feel like I grew up in kind of two very different worlds. Bailey Gatzert [Elementary], it’s actually where I spent most of my time growing up. And so all my friends were kind of in that Central District area. And that school was very similar to Lakeridge in terms of the population. It’s like a block away from a housing complex. All my friends were of, like…I mean it was so diverse, and that’s kind of where I grew up and where my identity was set.
So when I went to Eckstein [in the Ravenna neighborhood] for middle school, it was a huge, huge shift. And I remember going from literally being at the top of my class in fifth grade to, like, really struggling to stay afloat in middle school. And I remember in sixth grade thinking, “Oh man, if I’m having this much trouble in middle school, like, how are my friends doing?” I think that was the first time I realized that there was this idea of inequity in our education system.
UW College of Education partnered with seven school districts to bring higher quality education
That same year, communities from seven school districts in South Seattle and south King County — including Lakeridge’s Renton School District — joined together and with many other organizational partners, including the College of Education, to launch the Road Map Project, a program aimed at closing achievement gaps and making access to a quality education more equitable throughout the region.
“We know that many of our students come from homes where English isn’t the first language, where there’s poverty and transiency,” explains Jessica Granger, Lakeridge principal from 2011 to 2016. “They face more challenges than the average child, but that can’t be an excuse. You can’t blame children.”
With math selected as a subject in marked need of improvement, Granger was soon in contact with Elham Kazemi at the UW College of Education. Kazemi, the Geda and Phil Condit professor in math and science education, had previously worked with other schools on professional development, but knew that for Lakeridge an intense — and unprecedented — partnership would be needed.
In addition to serving elementary schools, the College of Education supports high school students in the Road Map Region through the Dream Project.
See Aisha Ali, a graduate of Kent-Meridian High School and freshman at UW Tacoma, describe what being a Dream Project mentee means to her and her family.Watch her story
Kids are capable regardless of their socioeconomic status
“We wanted to develop a culture of learning where teachers felt confident and supported,” says Kazemi. She knew that investing in adult learning would lead to higher-quality learning and improved test scores for students.
Kazemi worked closely with UW Bothell Associate Professor Allison Hintz and several graduate students to come up with a plan. The team proposed that the teachers come together for full-day, immersive sessions known as Math Labs. Teachers would gather in the school’s conference room to learn and practice new strategies, then head to an actual class to try out the lesson — as a team — with students.
“Giving and receiving feedback is invaluable in terms of growing professionally,” says Kazemi, but typically, “teachers don’t have ways of making what they’re doing in the classroom more visible to each other, something we aimed to change.”
As the teachers embraced the changes, their students equally adapted, devouring lessons like they never had before.
“You could see a huge shift in their understanding of math,” says Kert Lin, a fourth-grade teacher at Lakeridge and College of Education alumnus. “I think what’s made it so successful is that we provide kids with tools to show off what they’re learning. You can’t be in an environment like that and not have fun.”
Investing in school leadership can make change happen
By the end of the partnership, it was clear that the hard work paid off. Test scores rose across the school. Fifth-grade scores, in particular, saw dramatic change; the percent of students meeting math standards jumped from 20 percent to nearly 80.
While the scores were something to celebrate, the school saw them as a byproduct of the true victory: students were learning. In fact, Lakeridge considers one of their biggest accomplishments to be helping students who struggled the most rise from failing to near or at passing-level, a much harder leap to make in terms of learning.
“Education opens doors for opportunity, so our goal is to keep all students’ doors open,” says Granger. “If you can change what a child thinks is possible for themself, it will change what they think they can do through education.”
The scalable nature of the program is already enabling Kazemi and other faculty members to build professional learning communities at other schools in the Road Map region. Countless teachers and students stand to benefit, and Kazemi hopes that the work will continue spreading throughout the area.
“Kids are capable regardless of their socioeconomic status, but there’s so much about the professional workplace in poverty-impacted communities that makes it hard for teachers,” she says. “Investing in school leadership and professional development can make that change happen.”
Originally published October 2016