Monday, September 28, 2009

What’s new in the schoolhouse?

With the school year just underway and a new principal in place at John J. McGilvra Elementary School, I decided it would be interesting to learn what’s new in the ninety-six-year-old building. With that end in mind, my trusty photographer Jeff Romeo, his assistant Paul, and I all traipsed over to the school last week to meet with incoming principal DeWanda Cook-Weaver, on what was day nine of the new school year.

I can faithfully report, first of all, that the school district has categorically not spent too much money providing McGilvra’s principal with luxurious quarters. Cook-Weaver’s office probably measures no more than 10’ x 10’; and on the day we visited, it was still crammed with the new principal’s unpacked boxes (“I just haven’t gotten to them yet”). The remaining space was filled with file cabinets, a small table, a couple of chairs, and a utilitarian desk. The office was decorated, in part, with poster-sized sheets of paper on which were hand-written discussion points concerning McGilvra’s various incoming classes (“no pictures of them, please”). These, she said, had been used in her meetings with the school staff to help with planning for the new school year.

Although Cook-Weaver’s assignment as McGilvra’s principal technically began with the new contract year on September 1, she told me she made good use of the summer to get ready. “I made a point of meeting with the teachers and staff,” she said. “It was an informal opportunity for them to get to know me and for me to know them. I believe that good relationships are important.” She added that no one was required to meet with her in advance of the school year, but she “strongly suggested” that they do so (and apparently they all bought into the suggestion).

She also met with many of the parents, who she described as being “ultra involved” in the school and concerned about the education of their children. “This is good,” she told me. “I’ve had the experience of working in schools where there’s been a need to beat the bushes to get parent involvement.” That’s certainly not a problem here, she noted.

Cook-Weaver replaces Jo Shapiro as principal. Shapiro moved to Hamilton International Middle School to serve as assistant principal this year. Cook-Weaver’s last assignment was as co-principal of Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill. Prior to that she served as principal of Emerson and as an assistant principal of two other elementary schools in the Seattle district. So she’s had more than ten years of administrative experience; and she said she feels well prepared to lead the school, which this year has 21 teachers (including specialists) and seven support staff.

There are 255 students currently enrolled at McGilvra, with the students divided pretty equally between kindergarten and each of the five grades. Although detailed demographic information for this school year is not yet available, it is unlikely to be much different from the makeup of the school last year, since 80% or more of students each year are returning to the school. Last year the students were about half male and half female, with not a lot of ethnic diversity relative to the Seattle Public School population as a whole (which last year was only 43% white):

Interestingly, McGilvra was the “first choice” school for the parents of 75% of enrolled students. Almost exactly half of the school’s students (49.6%) lived in McGilvra’s “reference area”:

McGilvra has a solid academic reputation and a waiting list of students for enrollment each year. “We have some excellent teachers,” Cook-Weaver told me. “This is definitely a high academic achievement school.” McGilvra’s scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) certainly seem to prove the point. The school compares very favorably with other elementary schools in Seattle and with students across the State:

There is one area of academic concern, however, resulting from the WASL test last year. The writing skills of the school’s students, at least as tested at the fourth grade level, fell dramatically between 2007 and 2008. Last year only 59% of McGilvra’s students met the state writing standard, down from 90% the year before.

I asked Cook-Weaver what the school is doing to counter this apparent dip in writing skills. She said that improving writing had also been an issue at her last school, Lowell; and the approach there was to get approval from the school district to implement a special program at the school through Writer’s Workshop (WW). The goal was to bring up test scores by establishing “an interdisciplinary writing technique which can build students' fluency in writing through continuous, repeated exposure to the process of writing,” to quote WW’s statement of purpose.

Cook-Weaver attended K-2 training at the Writer’s Workshop in New York in 2007, she said, and followed that up with additional training this summer for the upper elementary grades. Whether the program should be or will be implemented at McGilvra, however, will depend on assessments made this year, Cook-Weaver said. “We know here at McGIlvra there is a need, and I have been in contact with (the school district) about the ways we might approach the problem.”

She told me that she is excited about having a new tool this year to measure ongoing academic progress at McGilvra. The school district has just implemented something called MAP, short for Measurement of Academic Progress. Unlike WASL, which is conducted only at the end of the school year for certain grades, MAP is a three-times-a-year computer–based testing program of all the school’s students in the areas of math and reading skills.
“I am elated to have something systematic to help us look at how our children are doing throughout the year and which lets us compare our progress with what’s happening across the district,” Cook-Weaver told me. “It will allow us to focus on how to help an entire class or even look at individual students.” The first MAP testing is already well underway at McGilvra, with the results becoming available to teachers in early October.

It was clear from my conversation with her last week that Cook-Weaver is both enthusiastic and dedicated to the job. I noted that last year’s survey of student attitudes gave McGilvra very high marks in almost every area. Here’s a sample of the students’ average responses (4.0 would represent absolute agreement with the statement):

“I like school” 3.3
“I try hard to do good work in school” 3.8
“It’s important to me to get good grades” 3.7
“I feel safe in my classroom” 3.8
“I like my teacher this year” 3.8
“I know what my teacher expects of me” 3.5
“My teacher is fair in dealing with students” 3.6

Cook-Weaver told me it’s her responsibility as principal to see that the “student climate” remains high at McGilvra under her leadership.

What’s the single biggest surprise of her brief tenure? “The intensity of parent involvement,” she said. Although she said she had heard about McGivlra’s parents and had been at other schools with highly committed parents, “now that I’m in the actual job at McGilvra, I have a real feel for what everyone was talking about.” Not that there’s anything wrong with highly interested parents. “We all are working for the same goal,” she noted. “The goal is to ensure that our children get what they need while they are at McGilvra.”

[Photos by Jeff Romeo Photography. Data source: Seattle Public Schools.]


  1. Another terrific post. As a parent of a pre-K student evaluating McGilvra and several private schools, this was a great post.

  2. FYI - Last year the PTA provided a grant to the teachers that allowed them to hire a Writers Workshop expert to come in and train them on the program/curriculum. Writers Workshop was in all the classes last year. That is probably one of the reasons our WASL writing scores improved.


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