Sixty percent of King County residents living in poverty are now located in the suburbs of South King County. In Auburn, the last decade has brought a two-fold increase in poverty and a 10-fold increase in non-English speaking students.
During this time, two elementary schools, Gildo Rey and Pioneer, became Auburn School District performance outliers, achieving high levels of proficiency in both reading and math despite high poverty and a high population of students learning English. They achieved success through school-based leadership, collaboration and analysis and measurement of student progress.
More importantly, they developed customized systems for the delivery of the aligned instruction called “walk to read” and “walk to math,” as well as other innovative frameworks involving child nutrition, co- teacher internship models and fitness programs.
Amid this progress, our district leadership has had to support the beta processes for continuous improvement at the school level and realize that many times it is the mothership that blocks achievement. The road to academic achievement travels from the board room to classroom. Strategic planners, including school boards, superintendents and directors, have to create the conditions that allow principals and teachers the autonomy to deliver customized instruction for students.
The management systems of the central office often override school efforts at continuous improvement for academic results. Efficiency is chosen over effectiveness. Systems such as district-wide curricula, transportation, food service and master schedules are major drivers that can block academic success despite the best of intentions. The Auburn School District had to focus more on “doing the right things” rather than just “doing things right.” This required a significant culture change with more collaboration and school-centered decisions in all district operations.
Transformation of our central office began with the school board, which undertook 125 hours of professional development on how boards can help schools with leadership and strategic planning.
We’ve partnered with the Center for Strengthening the Teacher Profession, and, at present, 30 percent of our teachers are a part of ongoing leadership training. Both classified and certified staff collaborate in a cohort leadership program where principals partner with the directors of finance, human resources, transportation and information systems. Professional development is focused and customized for each school.
When state-level assessments are changed and student demographics change, instruction, measurement and professional development all have to be recalibrated for individual student success. Our district has adopted the mantra “fail forward, and fail fast.”
We are mindful that we have a long way to go, but we aspire to be a mothership that creates the conditions for ongoing school achievement.
Kip Herren is superintendent of the Auburn School District.