Schools impress legislative guests

Districts display power of public-private cooperation

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

 
photoState lawmakers on the House Education Committee tour the Vancouver iTech Preparatory space in the Jim Parsley Community Center in Vancouver on Tuesday. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics magnet school also holds classes at WSU Vancouver.

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The Vancouver community's love for its schools was on display for state lawmakers Tuesday, as several members of the House Education Committee toured the city's schools to learn more about their education programs.

During the tour, Vancouver educators also touted their new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math schools, and answered questions about school performance and strategies for success. At least seven lawmakers attended, bringing their nonpartisan staff members.

State Rep. Sharon Tamiko Santos, D-Seattle and chair of the House Education Committee, leaned in and listened carefully as Vancouver Public Schools explained its ability to connect with local agencies, nonprofits, faith-based groups and private partners, and serve its poorest students.

By working with hundreds of community partners, the Vancouver school district gets a $5 return on every $1 it invests through the district's Family-Community Resource Centers, said Jennifer Blechschmidt, director of the district's 13 resource centers.

The Family-Community Resource Centers are places where families can find academic and early-learning programs; youth activities; health and social services; and parent resources, including a tardiness intervention program. Some of the centers' patrons receive food and housing assistance and even dental care.

The district can afford to provide these services because it relies heavily on donations and in-kind contributions from its many partners. Since 2009, Blechschmidt said, the schools with in-house resource centers have seen a 12 percent decrease in the number of students who leave and move to a different school.

"That is huge, and what that does to student learning is huge," Blechschmidt told legislators at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver's Bagley Downs neighborhood. Nearly 85 percent of the Roosevelt students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Principal Karrie Yank said.

Santos, who appeared impressed with Vancouver's community partnerships, chimed in with a story about education inequality in her hometown of Seattle.

She said she once attended a middle school fundraising breakfast in one part of town where the community was able to pull together $50,000 for the school in just two hours. At the same time, there was a school in another part of the city struggling to scrape together $2,000 to send its students to a band competition.

"Clearly, we have the haves and the have-nots," Santos said. "How do we make the whole (community) recognize that these are our kids?"

Partnerships

Vancouver gets that concept, Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said. He also said he's engaged families throughout the district early on, and sought ideas from them on how to help the area's poorest students.

"This was a shared vision," he told Santos. "There's something unique about this community. It just values partnerships. It's in the DNA of this community."

One of the challenges state legislators will face during the 2014 Legislature is putting more money into the state's K-12 education system, as mandated by the Washington Supreme Court. Lawmakers decided this year to increase public school spending by about $1 billion, but complying with the court's order will take even more.

New STEM schools

Lawmakers also are putting emphasis on readying students for high-tech, high-paying careers. On Monday, legislators got a glimpse inside the Vancouver school district's Vancouver iTech Preparatory, a magnet STEM school whose grades six through nine meet at the Jim Parsley Community Center and whose high school students meet at Washington State University Vancouver.

The academy teaches STEM classes, but interwoven with a liberal arts curriculum, the school's principal, Christina Iremonger, told lawmakers. The school has just embarked on its second year, and students are accepted through a lottery. About 75 percent of the students are boys.

Students are working on a number of projects, including restoration research at Mount St. Helens, and they present their findings to the public. As legislators moved through the tour, they popped into three of iTech's Parsley Center classrooms. In one, math students were learning about theories of beauty that are based on facial features and their proportions. In another, students were critiquing their peers' engineering brochures.

"STEM is actually related to everything, everything they could imagine," Iremonger said.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver and vice chair of the House Education Committee, was one of the lawmakers on the tour. At one point, she asked Iremonger if there was any data on students' growth while attending the new school. Iremonger said she would get that information to Stonier.

Evergreen district

Earlier in the day, the lawmakers also visited Sunset Elementary School -- to learn about its Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, which addresses disciplinary actions -- and the new Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School, another STEM school that has a state-of-the-art mock pharmacy, nursing station and biotechnology lab. Both are in the Evergreen school district.