Published Online:

A Seattle Principal Defies the Conventional Wisdom

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

SEATTLE--When Principal Levaun Dennett looked at her elementary school's test scores in the spring of 1985, they showed a bleak but familiar pattern.

"More of our black kids scored in the bottom ranges of the California Achievement Test,'' she recalls. "More of our free-lunch kids were in the bottom ranges.''

"More of our special-education kids were black,'' she continues. "More of our kids who were having trouble were boys.''

"It was the same pattern that everybody else was talking about,'' the principal says. "We were pulling kids out for special education, we were pulling kids out for Chapter 1 remedial education, we were pulling kids out for special-needs instruction, and it wasn't working.''

"The kids who were in trouble,'' she notes, "were the same kids who had always been in trouble.''

Unwilling to let the dispiriting cycle of failure continue, Ms. Dennett and her teachers have spent the last three years creating a school here in which all students can succeed.

At the restructured Montlake Elementary School, there are almost no "pullout'' programs that remove children from their regular classrooms for special instruction. Students are not labeled as handicapped or slow learners.

And teaching assignments and subjects have been reorganized to keep classes small--no more than 20 students per teacher.

Teachers are also intimately involved in designing the school's program and deciding on the training they need.

The result, according to one observer, is a "minor miracle'' in school reform that has attracted national attention and local controversy.

At the heart of the experiment are questions of how far individual schools can go to bend regulations their staffs believe to be harmful, and how far school districts should go in supporting unorthodox methods.

A New Structure

Montlake is a small elementary school nestled within the 44,000-student Seattle school district, which includes a total of 88 schools.

Four portable classrooms crowd the outside playground. The teachers' lounge, the gym, and the cafeteria all double as classrooms for part of each day.

The 243-member student body is racially mixed. Nearly one-third qualify for the federal school-lunch program, a traditional measure of poverty; almost half come from single-parent homes; more than 70 percent are bused to school under Seattle's voluntary desegregation plan.

Initially, Ms. Dennett thought the best way to help students would be simply to encourage teachers to vary their instructional methods.

But during discussions, teachers kept insisting that the problem was class size.

Convinced that her staff would not experiment with new teaching strategies until their primary concern was addressed, Ms. Dennett spent the summer of 1985 working on a plan to redesign the school.

First, she decided that all students would spend the morning on reading and mathematics.

The librarian, the science teacher, the special-education teacher, and the Chapter 1 teacher were all assigned to teach those subjects, allowing a reduction in class size to an average of 15 students.

Equally important, during basic-skills instruction, children were grouped by skills rather than grade level. A 5th grader having trouble with reading, a 4th grader working at grade level, and a 3rd grader reading at an accelerated pace were all grouped in the same class, working on the same skills.

In the afternoon, students returned to grade-level classes for social studies, science, and other subjects.

These changes in structure were combined with ongoing staff development--conducted by Ms. Dennett and outside experts--that taught teachers new skills and new ways of thinking about students.

According to Ms. Dennett, the results were dramatic.

'Couldn't Let Go'

"We saw kids who had been labeled, and had considered themselves handicapped, begin to drop all of that,'' she says, "and to think of themselves just as kids who were learning.''

Because teachers shared students during the day, they felt more responsible for the total school and worked more cooperatively. Morale improved. Discipline problems declined. And test scores shot up.

Over a two-year period, the reading-test scores of black students at Montlake improved 12 percentile points, while those of other black students in the district at the same grade levels dropped 6 percentile points.

In math, black students at Montlake had a 6-point advantage over their peers districtwide at the end of two years.

Despite the gains in students' test scores, however, state and district officials were unable to provide Montlake with waivers from federal regulations that ran counter to the school's program.

"By the time we got around to realizing that the 'compliance' issues were going to be very restrictive,'' Ms. Dennett says, "we'd already had such important results that we couldn't let go.''

And that was where Montlake's problems began.

Out of Compliance

Throughout the summer and early fall of 1985, when the project started, Ms. Dennett had worked closely with district and state officials to devise a program that would serve students well and still meet special-education and remedial-education requirements.

At the end of the first year, however, state officials informed Ms. Dennett that her program was out of compliance with federal Chapter 1 regulations.

Before the elementary-school principal could adjust the program to bring it back into compliance, she learned that a shortage of funds would make the school ineligible for any Chapter 1 money the following year.

At the same time, because Montlake no longer labeled students to meet special-education regulations, the school lost federal, state, and local funds earmarked for such instruction.

State and district officials--who had encouraged Ms. Dennett to proceed with her innovations--agreed to provide a total of $50,000 during the 1986-87 school year for staff salaries that had been paid out of the lost grants. But at the end of that year, the stopgap funding--split equally between state and district sources--dried up as well.

Moreover, when the current school year began, the Seattle district was in the midst of a severe financial crisis.

Although district officials have helped Ms. Dennett acquire a one-year, $125,000 grant from the federal government, that money will also disappear at the end of this year.

And officials now estimate that the school system as a whole faces a potential budget shortfall for 1988-89 of as much as $14 million.

That means that the Montlake project, having scraped by for two years without any federal categorical funds, now faces an even more uncertain financial future.

Although Ms. Dennett and others have lobbied legislators to change the requirements governing the state's remedial-education program, so far they have been unsuccessful.

'A Trust Issue'

"I think it still comes down to a trust issue,'' says Stephen Fink, coordinator of special programs for the Edmonds, Wash., school district, which has tried similar innovations. "State and federal officials fear that if they relieve the districts of the rules and regulations, somehow, we'll misuse the funds.''

The Edmonds school district has gotten around the problem of compliance by spending some $100,000 a year in local remedial-education money on programs that do not meet state and federal guidelines. In Mr. Fink's view, the Montlake program is a "terrific'' example of what such innovation can accomplish.

"It's more prevention-oriented than a traditional remedial-education program,'' he says. "By lowering the class size and making a qualitative difference up front, what you hope is that you can prevent kids from falling behind.''

"In the traditional remediation model,'' he adds, "we wait for the kids to fall behind, and then we give them hell.''

'A Lot of Caring'

Although some teachers at Montlake complain that Ms. Dennett pushes them too hard too fast, they are unreservedly proud of what they have accomplished.

"Everybody is just more at peace'' because of the smaller class sizes, says Irene Gunnette, who works part time as the school's librarian and part time as a reading and mathematics teacher.

"People aren't as stressed out,'' she says. "Teachers feel like their lessons are getting across to more children. Students are less frustrated, because if they have a problem that needs to be solved, we're able to solve it.''

Gary Cranston, a 2nd-grade teacher, says: "I know every one of my kids personally. The amount of work seems to be the same, but the quality of that work is in greater depth.''

With fewer students, he argues, "you can do more activity-oriented things, try to make school something that students will remember positively.''

After an initial year during which most teachers continued to rely on lecturing to get their subjects across, they now say they are experimenting with new methods.

Ms. Gunnette, for instance, has been using cooperative learning in her classrooms for the first time this year. "The children are teaching each other,'' she says. "I see some really good interactions.''

But she adds that she probably would not have tried the new technique with a bigger class. "It's more chaotic and noisy,'' she explains, "and I'm usually pretty quiet.''

Smaller classes, Ms. Dennett states, "allow people to look at things differently, to try new ideas.''

Teachers also say that there is a more cooperative spirit in the school than there was three years ago and that they have more say in day-to-day decisionmaking.

"At the school where I did my student teaching, I don't think anybody in the school knew what was happening in the classroom next to them,'' says Cindy Montzingo, a kindergarten and science teacher at Montlake. "Here, there's a real relaxed atmosphere. There's a lot of flexibility, and a lot of caring.''

"If you have a problem, there are a lot of people you can turn to for help.''

'This Isn't Support'

Despite such positive changes, constant worries about funding have resulted in tension between Montlake and the school system. As one 3rd-grade teacher puts it: "This is so special, and it is so visible. Why the school district doesn't pick up on this, it's sad.''

"They do not cooperate with our program, and you would think they would be thrilled,'' adds the teacher, Liz Holmes. "It's the best educational program I've been in.''

Several teachers at Montlake suggest that if district officials really cared about the program, they would find the money--somewhere--to fund it.

As an example, they point to $3,000 the school used to receive each year as part of the district's desegregation program. This year, other elementary schools in the program received $5,000; Montlake received nothing.

District officials say that since Montlake received almost all of the school system's discretionary funds last year--and since the school has received a federal grant this year--they had to drop Montlake from the list.

"To us, it didn't feel fair,'' says Ms. Dennett, "When teachers hear this, they think, 'This isn't support.'''

"If you talk to anybody in the district, they would probably say, 'Yes, we think of Montlake as one of our good schools,''' she adds. "But when you take a look at either the funding or the actual advocacy that goes along with that, it's hard to see.''

"And I think that's the discrepancy that teachers feel,'' she continues. "It doesn't do any good to say, 'We like Montlake. We support Montlake. Go look at Montlake if you want to see a good school,' when the reality is that the action doesn't follow the words.''

That view is sharply disputed by district officials. Donna Dunning, director of district relations, says, "Given our budget situation, we have really given the Montlake program very, very strong support.'' The district, she insists, has "aggressively and assertively'' attempted to find nondistrict resources for the project.

But she adds: "We're just not able to free extra amounts of money for innovation in any area, and that's tragic.''

'Extraordinary Sources'

Concerns about funding have also led to a continuing debate about whether Montlake costs more to run than do other elementary schools.

An August 1987 evaluation by the school district found that the per-student cost of the Montlake project--$2,328--fell within the "normal'' range for elementary schools in the district.

Replication of the program, it reported, would not require an "extraordinary level of funding.''

But it would require "extraordinary sources'' of funding, the report added, because the current structure of Montlake's program does not make it eligible for the special-education and remedial-education aid that the school normally would receive.

Such funds, the report noted, must come either from special sources outside the regular budget or from what would amount to a disproportionate share of the district's general funds.

That has led to a perception that Montlake costs more than other schools, despite Ms. Dennett's insistence that she is only asking for the same amount those schools get.

In addition, because the district has provided Montlake with "in kind'' resources--such as program evaluations and staff training--some people allege that Ms. Dennett is not being totally honest about the program's cost.

As one educator notes: "They have gotten grant money for staff training and individual projects, so it can be demonstrated that they have had more resources than the average school.''

"They have had 'motivation' money in there that other schools have not had,'' adds the educator, who asked not to be identified, "and Levaun [Dennett] has gotten it with the sweat of her brow.''

'44,000 Kids'

Tensions between the school and the district were heightened earlier this year, when the system's superintendent included Montlake on a list of small schools slated for possible closure.

Superintendent William M. Kendrick last month dropped Montlake from that list, but the months of uncertainty increased the perception of some parents that the district did not really support the innovations.

"It wasn't that Bill Kendrick said we're going to negatively impact Montlake,'' says Susan Adler, president of the school's parent-teacher association, "but he chose not to highlight what was going on at the school.''

Ms. Dennett agrees that Mr. Kendrick "has had to deal with a lot of issues that seem more important than 243 kids. He's dealing with 44,000 kids.''

The school system, she notes, is "trying everything it can to cut corners, so even though he'd like to be supportive, I think it's difficult to do that in a concrete way.''

Effectiveness Questioned

When questioned, district administrators express positive views about the Montlake experiment, but they also remain noncommittal about just how effective it has been in raising student achievement.

During its first year, the district's evaluation noted a "fairly dramatic increase'' in students' improvement in both reading and mathematics.

In 1986-87, however, while students' growth in math continued, their achievement growth in reading dropped off to a point somewhat below the average for the school system. Reasons for that sudden decline have eluded explanation, and a final evaluation of the program has yet to be completed.

Ms. Dennett speculates that the decline in scores may have occurred because all of her staff members were not in place until November 1986, when the district allocated its half of the $50,000 in stopgap aid. This year, she notes, all of her teachers have been on the job since school began, and she expects test scores to reflect that.

In any case, says Mona Bailey, Seattle's assistant superintendent for school operations, Ms. Dennett has improved the school in ways that test scores cannot measure.

"She has achieved higher staff morale, higher levels of participation both by teachers and parents, definitely a stronger commitment to the education of all children,'' says Ms. Bailey. "Montlake is a school that is working for children. You have the feeling that students feel successful.''

But she adds: "In making a final decision about the Montlake model, the means have to justify the ends.''

"We have to look at whether or not students gain significantly under this model,'' she says, "to justify the added staff resources that are required.''

Fighting Back

Observers also suggest that the national publicity Ms. Dennett has generated may have done as much harm as good.

Articles about Montlake have appeared in the press. The school principal has spoken at several national conferences. And last year alone, more than 100 teachers, administrators, legislators, university professors, school-board members, and parents came to look at the program.

"Montlake is one of those experiments that has happened to get a lot of publicity,'' says Ms. Dunning of the Seattle district. "But it is one of many, and it has tended to be very high-profile.''

"Any time you get a high-profile school with national recognition or state recognition, that's good,'' she adds. "But the reality of the human situation is that there are bound to be some negative feelings among other principals--not all--who for one reason or another are not quite as astute in terms of public relations.''

Adds another observer: "It's like the little kid in the class that always gets an 'A' in everything, and everybody hates him. And it's worse yet if that little kid holds up his hand and says, 'I got an 'A.'''

'A Place for Starters'

"Levaun has chosen to protect herself and her site by going public,'' the educator adds. "If you decide to fight [your battles] publicly, you can assume that people are going to fight back.''

Ms. Dennett acknowledges that she has caused the district "some discomfort.''

"It took me a long time, struggling with myself, to realize that there's a place in the world for people who are starters,'' she says. "One thing that really happens in large institutions--and a large urban school district is certainly a large institution--is that it gets uncomfortable when people don't fit inside the box.''

But she insists: "If we're going to change the system, it's not enough to do it quietly, inside our building. We really do have to be open about it.''

"Everybody has to try,'' she adds. "There has to be a way that we can make it safe for people to risk.''

Hopeful Signs

For now, Montlake's future appears bright.

District officials have promised Ms. Dennett that she will remain as principal next year and that the school will continue to operate. Key officials, she says, have assured her privately that they support what she is doing. If the program works, some officials say they would be interested in expanding it to other parts of the school system.

Montlake, along with many other schools in Washington State, has applied for a new state program called "Schools for the 21st Century.'' If selected, it would receive money for innovation and waivers from state and local requirements that get in the way of change.

Gov. Booth Gardner, who proposed the program, has visited the Montlake school and has pointed to it as an example of what the new legislation is trying to accomplish.

In addition, a national philanthropy, the Matsushita Foundation, has selected Seattle as one of several school districts nationwide in which it will help support education reform, and Montlake is participating in that effort.

Several local corporations and charities--including the Bullitt Foundation--also have provided support and recognition for the school.

Although problems remain--such as the school's small size and the district's financial difficulties--Ms. Dennett says she is an optimist.

She is already plotting the next phase of reform in her school.

She would like to see more teachers working in teams, she says. And she is talking to officials at the University of Washington about better ways to train student teachers who are placed in her building.

"I don't want people to copy Montlake,'' Ms. Dennett asserts, "as much as I want them to copy the idea that they can do something wonderful, too.''

"I've had an opportunity that some people don't have to look at education from a lot of different directions,'' she adds. "And I know there's an alternative that will work for everyone, if you just keep looking.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented