By Nancy Truitt Pierce
It has been over a year now since I was elected to the Monroe School Board. I want to report back on what I’ve learned, seen, heard and done.
You may recall that I come to this position with over 25 years as a management consultant to large local companies and with over 11 years on the board of Everett Community College. So, I’m experienced at digging into an organization to see what is working and what is not. I’ve spent this year digging deep and wide and spending a lot of time researching best practices for public education.
I have discovered that our schools in Monroe are much better than you’ve been told. There is still more work to be done but I’m thrilled and relieved to discover how good they are. Here are some facts to back that assertion:
The Monroe School District has been seen as a leader for years in offering options for families. Back in the early part of the century, long before I was elected, the school board decided that one size does NOT fit all and has worked with the superintendent and his team to build a rich array of options for our local families.
The result is that we are now one of the leading school districts in the state in offering options. Our families have as many or more options for finding the right program for each of their unique and precious kids than anywhere else in the state. In the past year, we added to that distinction by starting a dual language program at Frank Wagner Elementary and a Montessori program at Maltby Elementary. Both have been very well-received and have waiting lists.
We also boast the largest parent partnership in the state and are heralded as one of the national leaders in partnering with parents. We have one of the “Schools of Innovation” as named by OSPI: there are only 22 schools with this designation in the state (out of close to 3000 schools) so that’s an amazing honor for our Sky Valley Education Center. And SVEC is a magnet for over 400 kids who travel from other districts to attend here.
In financial management, we also excel. The state auditor went out to every school district in the state in 2011 and reviewed their uses of money to ensure it was being well-spent. Their report clustered the 295 school districts organized around the size and attributes of each district. In our cluster, we had less money but spent a higher percentage of it on teaching than any other district in that group. We had some of the lowest overhead and some of the lowest supervisory costs coupled with some of the highest support for teachers.
On almost every level, I have been pleased with what I have found. I think Dr. Hoover and his team is doing a good job with financial management, with instructional management and with employee management. We have new curriculum, new professional development and much better assessment data for the teams to use. As a result, there is a very good relationship between management and the unions and our teachers are some of the best in the region.
Monroe High School
Our high school has seen some very dramatic improvements in recent years, too. For instance:
- MHS now has an extended graduation rate of over 90%. We received an award from OSPI last year for having one of the best graduation rates in the state.
- We had four students qualify as national merit scholars this year and we have the longest string of years of producing National Merit Scholars of any high school in the area.
- The last two graduating classes have both earned over $5 million in scholarship offers, including several full- ride scholarships to Ivy League schools. We currently have kids at Stanford, MIT and several other top-rated colleges.
- Our advanced placement classes have grown from around 30 kids in 2006 to over 350 kids this year.
- Our SAT averages were above the state average this year and the state average was the highest in the country, putting our kids in the top tier nationally.
- And the Bearcats football team went to State. What’s not to like?
One of my favorite improvements at the elementary level is the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) model they have implemented. That model brings teachers together at each grade level with robust data so they can work together to assess how they are doing and help each other be effective. Each grade level PLC sends a representative to the Building Leadership Team to share successes and concerns and to work across the grade bands to improve the whole school. I was so impressed when I saw the model in action that I took Robin Fitch, Principal of Frank Wagner Elementary to one of my client meetings to show this model to corporate executives. They were in awe.
Dr. Hoover and Dr. Mester also implemented state-of-the-art curriculum, much more robust professional development, better assessments, more effective data and a stronger teacher evaluation and discipline process. We aren’t yet at the level of test results we want, but we are showing good progress. As an example, the test scores for the fifth grade dramatically increased across the board this year at all five elementary schools. Since Dr. Hoover has been here six years, I consider the fifth grade one of the key indicators that the plan he has implemented is working. It clearly is.
But there is still more to do! Here are the things I think we all need to be concerned about:
- Aging facilities. We have old buildings and a lot of deferred maintenance and we are short of space. As we start another cycle of growth, that is going to be a problem very soon. We already have 34 portables spread among the ten schools, housing close to 800 kids – with two more scheduled for this fall. That is the equivalent of two elementary schools or a middle school.
- Struggling families. We still have a lot of local families who are desperately poor. That translates into kids who come to school without the experience, supplies, readiness and support they need. The strongest correlation with academic success is family income. It’s a community challenge that we will need your help to overcome and I’ve been gratified to see how many groups have already stepped up to this challenge! The food bank, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club are just a few that are incredible partners in this effort. But we still need more!
- Low test scores. Many of the kids in the families noted above are having trouble academically. In one of our schools, we have over 80% of the kids on free and reduced lunches; 48% of them don’t speak English as their native language; 25% of them qualify for special education; and we have a 20% turnover rate since their families are very prone to moving to find stability. It’s a huge challenge for the kids, their families and the teachers.
- We did not pass the technology levy, which has left us behind on providing tools at the level parents provide at home, and our kids need to be competitive. Hopefully, we can correct this soon. This town deserves great schools and we have the team in place to produce them. We need to give them the support they need to get it done.
The bottom line is that we have good schools and they are just getting better. We have great teachers and great educational leaders in this town. Join me in thanking Dr. Hoover and his team of extraordinary educators. We are lucky to have them. I look forward to working with you to take these schools all the way to great!
Nancy Truitt-Pierce is the Monroe School Board Director for District #2. She annually submits an editorial on the state of the school district to the Monroe Monitor.