Vancouver school found success in 'opportunity zone'

National group takes note of ‘opportunity zone’ that improved low-income students’ performance

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www.learningfirst.org

National education advocates are taking notice of a successful program that helped raise the test scores of Vancouver’s poorest students.

Vancouver Public Schools in 2010 established a so-called “opportunity zone” containing 14 schools with the highest percentages of children living in poverty in the district. Officials spent extra effort and money on those schools, both in the classroom and in parent outreach.

The opportunity zone’s success this week grabbed the attention of a national group called Learning First Alliance. The initiative also will be discussed at a national conference for administrators of a federal anti-poverty program later this month.

The opportunity zone in part sprang out of a failed attempt at getting federal money in exchange for reforms. In 2010, Discovery and Jason Lee middle schools landed in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, as measured by their students’ performance on math and reading tests averaged over three years. It wasn’t the first time the schools made that list, which earned them a “tier II” designation by the feds and the right to apply for school improvement grants. Schools have to lay out plans for drastic change to get the grants, and Vancouver school officials promised to reassign principals and hold teachers accountable for their students’ scores if they got the money. But they didn’t get the grant.

That setback spurred administrators’ creativity.

How it happened

The schools in the opportunity zone received additional teacher training, computer technology for classrooms and tutoring sessions after school. But the district also addressed some of the root causes of the low-income students’ low performance. The two middle schools that were on the bottom of the performance list are among those with the highest percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, said Associate Superintendent Christine Burgess.

Officials set up nine family-community resource centers — or FCRCs. Paid staff and volunteers at those centers taught parenting classes, served as liaisons between parents and social service agencies, and even organized food banks. They also provided early-childhood schooling.

On Tuesday, Burgess presented the achievements of the zone schools to the Vancouver school board.

The two middle schools are off the dreaded low-achievement list. The percentages of students with passing scores in reading and math are rising dramatically in the zone, closing the gap between low- and high-income neighborhood schools.

That caught the attention of the national organization.

Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 16 groups, ranging from the nation’s two main teacher unions to national associations of school administrators. It features a collection of success stories from around the country on its website. The stories are about school districts that overcame a challenge in a way that might be an example to others, said Anne O’Brien, deputy director of the alliance.

“We agreed that (Vancouver’s story) would be a great addition,” she said.

The alliance was impressed that the Vancouver district addressed two factors that are often left out of the national debate on education reform — early childhood education and family engagement, O’Brien said.

Parent centers

The parent centers have grown in popularity, both with parents and with businesses and agencies partnering with them, Burgess said.

Since the beginning of this school year, the centers had more than 10,000 transactions with parents to provide — or connect them with — basic-need services.

Nearly 2,500 parents have taken classes at the centers this school year. Staff members who speak Spanish or Ukrainian referred about 380 parents who don’t speak English to agencies for help.

And partnerships with businesses and individuals donating professional services at the centers have grown from 22 when the program started to more than 450 today, Burgess said.

The district spent about $1.5 million on the opportunity zone, most of it from state and federal grants for low-income schools, Burgess said. For every dollar the district has put into the parent centers it has received about $2 in donated services from community members, she said.

Programs such as Vancouver’s are rare, O’Brien said. She could only think of three similar efforts, all of them in very large cities on the East Coast. There likely are others, but very few districts have focused on their lowest-income schools the way Vancouver has, she said.

The opportunity zone and the parent centers will be the topic of a presentation at the annual conference of the National Title I Association Jan. 23 in Seattle. Jennifer Blechschmidt, who coordinates the nine parent centers, will speak to administrators and teachers who work in Title I schools — recipients of special federal money directed at low-income kids.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-609-6734; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com.

-- This story was changed to reflect that the principals of Discovery and Jason Lee middle schools would have been reassigned to other positions within the district under a reform proposal. The original story was unclear on their status.