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Delivering the goods: One school’s success aligning its mission with its practice

This article about Northern Heights Elementary School in Bellingham was written by John Korsmo, Wendy Barrett, Shelby Friesen and Leanne Finlay. Their bios can be found at the end of this post.

Jump to Northern Heights’ story.

Introduction

There seems to be endless chatter of late related to education reform and/or revitalization. Discussing what education our children deserve evokes a range of emotive assertions and images for effective pedagogy relating to everything from the physical schoolhouse, to educational standards, pre-service preparation of teachers and administrators, assessment and accountability, and more. Researchers and philosophers have been postulating what education and formal schooling really is, and should be, for centuries, although the purpose of education is not so frequently “at the heart of American social and educational discourse” (Pekarsky, 2007). Schools have historically, and frequently continue to serve multiple functions, including the promotion of emotional health and well-being, vocational training, social, intellectual, and even ethical development (Goodlad, 1979).

Given the breadth of thinking of what education and its related schooling are, there are countless opinions of how best to go about providing that service to our children. Such thinkers as Confucius, Aristotle, and Plato laid some groundwork for later education powerhouses such as John Dewey and Rudolph Steiner (Stemler, Bebell, & Sonnabend, 2010), as well as contemporary researchers and practitioners. When it comes to voicing a simple opinion of the education our children deserve, we seem bound only by our imagination. Yet, one needn’t fantasize too greatly in order to make significant improvements to our education practices. It is suggested here that much can be gained if we ‘simply’ deliver on what we say we will do with, and for our children. It is certainly not that honesty and follow-through are novel concepts in education, yet a consideration of the vast gaps between the rhetoric and reality (Schirch, 2007) of school missions and visions, and what actually gets done, intimates that it may be a notion that is not frequently adhered to.

In that vein, this paper simply suggests that our children deserve an education that closely resembles what schools already claim they provide. Written by a variety of stakeholders at Northern Heights Elementary School, in Bellingham, WA, including the school principal, a program staff member, and two parents of schoolchildren (one of whom is a professor of Human Services in Woodring College of Education), this article tells of recent efforts to improve the education its students receive. After careful consideration of how to make improvements on what was already believed to be a great school, the administration and staff took it upon themselves to address the gap between what it claimed through its mission and vision, and how it operated. The efforts to intentionally align its daily practice with its noble and lofty mission are showing promise for providing the education we believe our students deserve.

For the most part, school communities around the country already espouse having the best interest of children, families, and society in mind, however there is all too often a fundamental lack of alignment between what is promoted, and what actually gets done. Much has been written about various “theories in use”, and veritable shortcomings of “saying one thing, and doing another” (Argyris, C., 1980; Argyris, C., & Schon, D., 1978; Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & McLain Smith, D., 1985), and yet gaps between what we say we want, and what we do, are prevalent.  We suggest here that our children deserve an education that embodies the vision and mission of the schools and districts where their learning is to be taking place. On the surface, this may seem like a trite recommendation for such an important and seemingly daunting issue, however central to many of the apparent shortfalls in our education practices is a discernable gap between what we say we want to do with and for our children, and what actually gets done. This is the case informally, in casual break-room conversations, in educational blogs and documentaries, and even in academic periodicals, wherein we often “speak a mean game,” but seem to be unwilling or unable to play it. Unfortunately, the gap between what we say and what we do is vast in many formal applications as well, including fundamental guideposts for education institutions, such as vision and mission statements. It’s one thing (and bad enough, at that) to wax poetic and stretch the truths around the water cooler, but altogether wrong to do so in formal applications. Frankly put, we need to stop lying to our children and communities.

There has been much needed discussion of late relating to opportunity gaps in education (see for instance, DeShano da Silva, Huguley, Kakli, &  Rao, 2007; Milner, 2010; Phelps Deily, 2010), as the gaps that exist in opportunity between our high- and low- privilege groups (based on such characteristics as socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, geographic location, and others) are downright appalling. Critical work is underway by scores of institutions throughout the country to shed needed light on this systemic problem – from institutions of higher learning to nonprofit educational foundations and “think tanks.”  However, the gaps between the positively-framed mission and vision rhetoric of the roughly 100,000 public schools around this country, and their actual day to day operations are also in need of some scrutiny (US Dept. of Education, 2010.)

The alignment of values and missions with day-to-day practice should be unique for each school or district, depending on their local needs and strengths, and based on their individual goals (Davis, Ruhe, Lee, & Rajadhyaksha, 2007). There most certainly is not one overarching correct way to envision a school, or to educate a child. Individual school communities must be given the ability to identify and set their own specific goals, based on their strengths and needs. While some of us in the United States and elsewhere have the privilege to “shop around” for the education that seems to meet our personal needs for our own children, many do not share that opportunity. Whether we are in privileged enough to shop around for schools for our children, or are in a position where we need to “take whatever we can get”, we share the ability to get to know our children’s schools. What we are told, however, too often does not match reality.

We can read mission and vision statements, communicate with teachers, tour campuses, and read academic statistics on just about any school in the country. In fact, this can often be done virtually, via the internet, without ever leaving the security and comfort of our homes. One parent of three students at Northern Heights, when considering the process of choosing a neighborhood to live in, and therefore a local public school to send her children to compared the task with selecting a meal from a menu:

We can read the menu of offerings, we can compare customer reviews, and we, if we are fortunate, can even sample some of what is being served up as the “special of the day.” We won’t all want the same thing from any given menu, but we do want, and expect to in fact be served what we ordered.  (S. Friesen, personal communication, March, 11, 2011)

Perhaps this is where some of our schools are falling short.  Are schools providing what their students, and families ‘ordered’? The vision statement of a school is arbitrary if the school community is not working to support it. This is not to say that a school should not set lofty desirable goals for itself. On the contrary, our children deserve high expectations. They also deserve schools that uniformly and wholeheartedly strive to meet those expectations, where the administration, teachers, staff, and volunteers genuinely believe in and share the work of reaching the vision.

This notion was recently addressed by Ursula Casanova (2010), in her depiction of the trials and successes of Cibola High School (CHS), in Yuma Arizona. A student-centered public high school a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, over 95% of CHS’s students graduate, and nearly all of them go on to post-secondary education. This success is seen despite the statistical odds that are stacked against the school, where the vast majority of students receive free lunch, and more than 95% of the general student population are students of color, including roughly 74% of the student population who are Latino(a), many of whom being recent immigrants. The success of the school, while exceptional from a statistical standpoint, is not surprising; at least not to the administration, teachers, staff, and students who embody the school’s mission and vision, and work diligently to see it fulfilled. Casanova (2010) captures the energy and passion with which the school’s mission and vision have been developed, embraced, and ultimately fulfilled at CHS. Teachers and administrators, when determining the ingredients to success over the past twenty years, consistently credit this intentional alignment of action and rhetoric for its positive outcomes.

There has been considerable work done in educational research over the past 30 years investigating what is working for “highly effective” schools (Perez, M. & Socias, M., 2008). When considering the successes of some of these schools, several questions have surfaced. How does a school community move beyond visionary mission statements displayed on the school walls? How does it actualize the words and ensure that the vision becomes reality? The answers to these questions of course vary as widely as the schools who are responding to them. A key element however seems to be the notion of ownership, and buy-in to any sort of plan for reform. When people are brought on board, to be part of a change process, such as fulfilling a vision or mission, they are considerably more likely to be positively engaged and motivated to work towards achieving the stated goals (Lambert, L., 2003; Turnbull, B., 2002).

Northern Heights

Located in Bellingham, Washington, Northern Heights Elementary School serves just under 500 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Several diverse groups are represented within this population. Families who are of middle to upper middle socio-economic status merge with an increasing number of families who fall well below the poverty line. Nearly 40 percent of the students qualify for a federally subsidized free meals program, with a significantly higher number of students receiving reduced rates for meals. The ethnic diversity at Northern Heights has increased every year since its opening in 2002. Thirty-six percent of the students are of other ethnicity than “white,” whereas the census indicates roughly 13% non-white ethnicity for the city overall (US Census, 2009). Additionally, 5% of the students are children of Russian or Ukrainian immigrants. The Latino/a population has consistently increased about 2% per year over the previous six years. Eighteen world languages are spoken in the homes of Northern Heights families, with the English Language Learner (ELL) program serving 12 % of the school population.  Additionally, there are many students who continue to develop their English language skills but no longer qualify for service through the ELL program.

Approximately one third of the parent population lack basic literacy skills, including command of the English language. Ninety-three students were served through Special Education in 2010, representing 19% of the school’s population. This includes a preschool population of approximately 20 students, and a cluster program for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Additionally, two students were served through a district-provided Highly Capable Program. With this demographic, in fall of 2008 there was a strong sense of urgency to achieve two goals: to provide a cohesive, relevant academic program for all students, and create a sense of community that provided access and enfranchisement for all stakeholders. Staff and community representatives then engaged in developing a vision that recognized the community demographic, and that was both ambitious and future-oriented. This vision not only set direction for high academic standards and rigorous learning, but also addressed the contemporary needs and strengths of the school community. This vision was different from those of the past. It was personalized to connect with the lived experience and community assets of the school’s current stakeholders, in particular the international perspective.

Like so many schools throughout the United States, visitors at Northern Heights can read on its walls the formally adopted mission and vision statements that articulate the values of the school. As expressed on the walls of the school, all students at Northern Heights presumably:

[Deserve a] school community [that] engages all stakeholders in learning through inquiry, critical thinking and authentic problem solving taught within a safe, nurturing learning environment. [A place where] all learners participate as active members of a supportive, involved community that recognizes the contributions of individuals and their diverse perspectives. [Where] individuals within [its] learning community develop and demonstrate personal characteristics and attitudes which allow them to positively contribute to a shared global society” (Northern Heights Elementary School, nd).

Implicit in this vision is the understanding that children and families expect and deserve accountability from the adults in their lives, to ensure the fulfillment of the mission of the educational institutions they attend.

The vision statement for Northern Heights is not particularly unique, however.  Indeed the creation of learning communities with the goals of supporting students in becoming positive contributors to society is common. In fact we are hard pressed to find a school that does not claim to be committed to supporting its learners in “developing as individuals” and becoming prepared for positive citizenry and entry to higher-level education, the workforce, or some other contributing role in society. The mission for the US Department of Education itself includes, “…promote[ing] student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness” (US Dept. of Education, 2010). Yet, we are all too aware that this does not always happen. Far too many children do not receive the education their schools espouse, and which they so deserve. The stated agreements of what we believe our children deserve from their schooling come into conflict with the reality of our typical education systems (Ruiz, 1997). Furthermore, while some embraced the vision at Northern Heights, it was not alive in the minds or practices of all staff, which did not bode well for comprehensive and inclusive success.

Critical Conversations

As a next step, staff engaged in deep and sometimes contentious conversations about what the elements of the vision and mission statements actually meant. For instance, what did phrases such as “engages all stakeholders” and “demonstrate positive personal characteristics” mean to each individual, and to the collective group? Establishing this common meaning was an important foundation from which to build deeper understanding, and generate a higher level of staff commitment to the work ahead. As staff worked toward common understanding, an important set of questions were consistently raised; “What does it look like if we are doing these things we claim, and how will we know if we are achieving our goals? Even if we know where we want to go, how will we get there?” The questions were challenging but exciting, as staff delved deeper into the vision to find their answers. Identifying specific teacher and learner traits and behaviors that lead to and demonstrate various aspects of the vision resulted from this work. Finally, there was clarity among the staff of the meaning of its new vision, as well as what it would look like as the school moved toward actualization.

At this point in school development processes, the typical answer to such questions is sought through an administration-driven strategic planning process, including the identification of short-term goals, creation of action steps, and delegation of oversight to various committees, each ultimately reporting back to the administrator. In the case of Northern Heights, a different approach was taken. With the belief that shared leadership was essential to success, a leadership team consisting of six classroom teachers, two support teachers, a para-educator,  and the school principal was identified. Referred to as the “Compass Team”, these individuals had responsibility to provide direction, and guide the change efforts in the school. Meeting at a minimum of twice per month, with additional extended planning meetings,  the Compass Team made pivotal decisions that not only changed the way the work was approached, but ultimately led to transformation of the school’s culture. Even with a compelling vision and strong staff commitment, the work still seemed so complex and daunting that traditional approaches to schooling did not make sense to the team.  The team was passionately committed to making and sustaining change. They wanted something different, and were empowered to think “outside the box,” yet no one wanted to engage in school development practices that had not been proven successful in the past.

International Baccalaureate Program

To support this effort the principal and a small group of teachers began to research school development processes and programs that had demonstrated success in schools similar to Northern Heights. The team knew that the answers to the questions of, “where do we want to go, and how do we get there?” had to fit within the context of the school’s culture and organizational structure. Several models were reviewed, including America’s Choice School Design, Core Knowledge, and School Development Programs. While each of these had demonstrated some evidence of effectiveness, none seemed to fully support Northern Heights’ desired work toward a vision that went beyond student academic achievement, to include personal and social development, as well as global awareness for all stakeholders in the community. Upon further review, the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (IB-PYP) appeared to hold promise, and was considered for further investigation.  In February 2008, the Compass Team attended an International Baccalaureate (IB) orientation in San Diego, California, and further visited elementary schools that were using the IB-PYP approach. Strong alignment with the Northern Heights vision and cultural and demographic contexts were immediately evident, as demonstrated in the schools that were visited. With cautious excitement, the team returned to share their findings.

Initial staff response to the notion of adopting a ‘packaged’ educational curriculum and program was skepticism. Some pushback came with questions such as, “Why do we need to buy into a specific program? What about the expense in a time when financial resources are declining? Can’t we just do it ourselves?” The easier questions were vocalized, but there were harder underlying questions clearly on the minds of staff that went unspoken.  Suddenly, it appeared that individuals might really have to do something different in their approach to educating children. The school’s culture and ways of doing business might have to change. To adopt the IB program, teachers would not be able to work in isolation, as had previously been common practice. Congeniality needed to evolve into collaborative collegiality. Staff would have to come to common agreements in many areas of their work, including curricular priorities, instructional approaches, and assessment methods. In short, individual interests had to be subjugated to the greater good for the group.  In hallways and the staff room, there were whispered questions of personal efficacy, motivation, engagement and capacity for change. While the Compass Team had recognized the need to take different actions, there was a dawning realization that actualizing the vision meant deep and substantive change. With this realization came growing trepidation.

While there are scores of educational programs the school may have selected, the core philosophy and tenets of IB resonated with Northern Heights administrators and staff. They see their involvement with IB as a choice that meets their current needs, knowing that the IB program is in no way the panacea some may be hoping for in education revitalization, but rather simply one option to consider.  In keeping with the school’s consideration for self-actualization, there is an overarching belief that no single program is right for every school, or every location. Simply put, the IB program seemed to fit the school’s needs, given its current context. The major message here is not one of endorsing or advocating for a single specific program or model. Rather, it is to express an imperative need to align the espoused way of being, as a school community, with the actions taken. This high level of responsibility supports the entire school community as it strives to fulfill its own potential. This concept is also a principal element of the IB program.

The IB Primary Years Program is designed for students between the ages of three and twelve, and focuses on the development of the “whole child” as an inquirer, in the classroom and in the community, as well as in the greater world. It provides an educational framework based upon the five elements of: concepts, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and action.  As can be found on the IB website (http://www.ibo.org/), these five elements provide the students with opportunity to:

  • Gain knowledge that is relevant and of global significance
  • Develop an understanding of concepts, which allows them to make connections throughout their learning
  • Acquire trans-disciplinary and disciplinary skills
  • Develop attitudes that will lead to international-mindedness
  • Take action as a consequence of their learning

The IB-Primary Years Program provides a curriculum model so that course plans aim to achieve the five elements above, and are expressed in three interconnected ways, focusing on:

  • The written curriculum- or, “what do we want to learn?”
  • The taught curriculum- or, “how best will we learn?”
  • The assessed curriculum- or, “how will we know what we have learned?”

 

According to the IB Organization website (2011), “…at the heart of the programme’s philosophy is a commitment to structured, purposeful inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning.” Furthermore, the program is described by the international organization as having six trans-disciplinary themes and subject areas (IBO, 2011):

Six trans-disciplinary themes of global significance provide the framework for exploration and study:

  • who we are
  • where we are in place and time
  • how we express ourselves
  • how the world works
  • how we organize ourselves
  • sharing the planet

Teachers are guided by these themes as they design units of inquiry that both transcend and articulate conventional subject boundaries. The program themes are embedded in six general subject areas, which are at the heart of Northern Heights’ curriculum:

  • language
  • social studies
  • mathematics
  • arts
  • science
  • personal, social and physical education

In the classroom, the model emerges in unique ways.  Students are taught to investigate “central ideas” from multiple perspectives, and for various themes. As example, while considering the theme of, “how we express ourselves,” second graders may be assigned a central idea of, “feelings and ideas can be expressed through poetry.”  They may use any number of lines of inquiry to explore that idea, such as different genres of poetry, the process of writing poetry, the various purposes of poetry, and so on.  For the theme, “where we are in place and time,” fourth graders may study the central idea of how “resources influence behavior.” This may be done through a variety of lines of inquiry, such as investigating how physical geography and resources influence where people choose to live, how living things move to get their basic needs met, and how communities can be culturally, politically, and economically important because of their resources.

The segment of the IB curriculum that resonates most with students at Northern Heights is the “learner profile,” which provides a long-term vision of education. The IBO (2011) describes the learner profile as:

…a set of ideals that can inspire, motivate and focus the work of schools and teachers, uniting them in a common purpose. The attributes and descriptors of the learner profile define the type of learner the IB hopes to develop through its programs…

Further, the student learner profile includes a set of ten attributes “expected of an international[ly minded] person: inquisitive, thinker, communicator, risk-taker, knowledgeable, principled, caring, open-minded, well-balanced, and reflective” (Stillisano, Waxman, Hostrup, & Rollins, 2011).

Initiating Change

The Compass Team responsible for investigating alternatives for Northern Heights realized that forward movement had to begin with open recognition and acceptance of the fears experienced by staff. It was clear that change was going to take substantial time. The old business adage of, “go slow to go fast” became the mantra. The team intentionally established a climate of safety and opportunity; safety to freely question, and opportunity to explore the IB programs.  In the time between February 2008 and June 2009, all teachers and support staff were able to experience elements of IB first hand, through school visitations, IB teacher interviews, and attendance at conferences and/or trainings. Excitement began to build as teachers returned to share their experiences, and experiment with the IB curriculum and instructional approaches in their classrooms. As remarked by one veteran fifth-grade teacher (B. Candini, personal communication, October 15, 2010),

When we first began observing other IB schools it felt as though we were breaking some sort of code of silence. Yikes! How often do teachers get to see how other members of their profession actually teach? Never before had I had an opportunity to step into classrooms outside our district…we were given the unique opportunity to ask other teachers just like ourselves what both the positives and negatives were in the IB program and I heard both.

Staff were energized by the differences they observed in student engagement and learning. Realizing that they were learning alongside their students, the nature of the teachers’ conversations changed. Suddenly teachers were sharing their learning and taking risks to openly ask questions about their practice successes and challenges. The adults were modeling the very learning attributes and behaviors they wanted to see in their students.  In the staff room, teachers were talking about formative and summative assessments and discussing key concepts, on which to focus instruction. The school began to hum with a different kind of energy, one that emanated from a value for and commitment to learning for all stakeholders in the community. As stated by a fifth grade teacher, “…After twenty-three years of teaching I have to accept that I still have a very long way to go as a teacher in an inquiry-based classroom but that just motivates me…”  (B. Candini, personal communication, October 15, 2010). The same teacher went on to state:

I am positive that we are all getting a little bit better with each and every lesson we teach…It has been a privilege to work on a staff where we were given a voice in our decision to evaluate an educational program and determine if it met the needs of our students and school…I am extremely proud of our staff for agreeing to implement this program knowing it would be a huge undertaking but accepting the challenge because we knew in our hearts it would make significant differences in our kids, and I think it already has…

At the center of the change was student learning.  While teachers were excited and energized, the focus was directly on student learning and parent satisfaction with the educational experience. Several initiatives were put in place to educate parents and the school community about the IB Primary Years Program.  Coffee and Conversation meetings were held with parents. Newsletters included articles about the program and several open house opportunities were made available to families. A group of 5th grade students and the Library Media Specialist produced an informational video that included classroom examples, as well as teacher and student interviews about the program. The video was sent home with each family so that children could view it with their parents. While all of these parent education initiatives were important, the best communication about the program and changes at Northern Heights came from the children themselves.  The impact of intentionally aligning the school’s mission and vision with day-to-day practice through use of the IB Primary Years Program is evident when listening to students, staff and families.  In a recent interview with students, a fourth grade girl was asked what it means to be an International Baccalaureate school. Her response focused on the culturally responsive and global elements of the program, “…[it] means we are a part of a world school district.”  Similarly, Andy, a fifth grade student, put it this way, “We are a part of a global community… [and] we learn about other countries, other languages and other cultures.”  Fifth grade student, Carter, stated, “We have to learn about others in the world because we are not the only people living on earth.  It’s important to know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes.”

Each student had an understanding of the importance of being internationally minded.  The IB program’s six trans-disciplinary themes are the launching point for the international focus.  The themes relate to issues of global significance, as we are living in an ever-growing pluralistic society. The trans-disciplinary framework allows students to move beyond typical confines of topic areas, to inquire about the interconnectedness of their experiences to others. The six trans-disciplinary themes of: Who we are; Where we are in place and time; How we express ourselves; How the world works; How we organize ourselves and; Sharing the planet, guide the learning at the school. As indicated by the IB Program (2008), these themes are used by teachers to “develop a program of inquiries- in-depth investigations into important ideas, identified by the teachers, and requiring a high level of involvement on the part of the students.  These inquiries are substantial, in-depth and usually last for several weeks” (IBO. 2008. About the International Baccalaureate. Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.ibo.org/). These themes are a guide to teachers as they design units of inquiry that both transcend and articulate conventional subject boundaries.

Through the 2008-09 school year parents were asked to give feedback, ask questions and indicate their level of support for the PYP.  By June 2009, 73% of the parent community had responded with positive comments and strong support for full program implementation. In June 2009, with strong support from staff, parents and students, Northern Heights submitted an application to the International Baccalaureate Organization, seeking PYP Candidate School status. In the following year the school community further implemented elements of the program including curriculum alignment, development of trans-disciplinary units of instruction, implementation of student-centered instruction, use of inquiry as a cornerstone of learning, Spanish language instruction, and strong infusion of the IB Learner Profile in all aspects of teaching and learning.

The learning curve and workload was steep, as teachers met in collaborative teams on a weekly basis. During these meetings, they developed curriculum, planned assessments, reflected on student learning and revised their units of instruction. With each new learning and completed Unit Planner, the staff grew in their commitment to the program and each other. They could see and feel the vision becoming reality as they interacted with students and their families. At this point, there was no turning back. A first-grade teacher was adamant about her expectations for the culture and curricular change at the school (L. Hawes, personal communication, October 15, 2010),

Something I have thought on, and shared with our two IB [reviewers] who came to visit us for our accreditation visit was that I really feel that I have learned more and grown more as an educator in the past three years than I had in all of my twenty-eight years of teaching and that I can’t imagine going back to the way I used to teach before the process – not that I was a bad teacher before! It is such a win-win opportunity for myself as an educator and for my students. I am excited about teaching again and about the further exploration…what a wonderful and beneficial [alignment of values and practice] this is for all levels of my students. Even at a young age they have become independent workers [and] able to problem solve situations and assignments while working cooperatively with others using caring and open mind attitude towards their peers…

In May 2010, the staff unanimously agreed to seek full authorization for Northern Heights to be designated as an International Baccalaureate World School, offering the Primary Years Program to its students.  Authorization was granted in January 2011, following a rigorous process of documentation and site visitations from the IBO.

Moving Toward the Education our Children Deserve

The suggestion of aligning rhetoric and reality – in terms of bringing congruence between the missions and actions of schools is rudimentary. Some may argue it is indeed too simplistic of a consideration when determining how to provide the education our children deserve. We argue, however that our children deserve precisely what is often expected of them in their schooling; authenticity, honesty, integrity and accountability. While considering the rankings of more than a thousand elementary schools in Washington State, a quick review of the mission statements of the lowest, or “worst” performing school (ranked 1004th) and the highest, or “best” performing school points to very similar written intentions. One states that its “…school community provides a positive, enriching environment where we live, learn, and grow peacefully together.” The other touts being “a learning community where all children meet their goals; have an authentic sense of belonging and empowerment…,” etc.

The vision and mission statements of these two schools are fundamentally identical, and yet one of them shines at the top while the other lingers at the bottom of this statewide ranking. We understand there to be myriad contributing factors for the variance in the scores associated with any ranking system. No doubt there are different variables at play that make it more or less likely for a school to be supported in fulfilling its mission. Some schools are clearly more privileged than others are, and some have more daunting obstacles in their way. Nonetheless, we must hold ourselves accountable for our claims. The education our children deserve includes honest strategic efforts to deliver on our promises to our learning communities. The administration and staff at Northern Heights believe they were already a “good school” when they took it upon themselves to intentionally investigate how to minimize the gap between its rhetoric and reality. Today they are convinced, based on student, family, and staff perceptions that they are even better.

Authors

Dr. John Korsmo is an Associate Professor of Human Services in Woodring College of Education, at Western Washington University. A previous teacher, counselor and coach at private and public elementary and high schools, and long time community-based youth worker, John is interested in the ways in which education can be revitalized to specifically empower traditionally disenfranchised populations. He is also a proud father of two students at Northern Heights Elementary School (3rd and 5th grades).

Shelby Friesen has a degree in Human Services, and has worked at a number of community-based youth and family serving organizations. Shelby is actively engaged in a variety of youth and young adult enrichment programs, and is interested in how families and communities can work together with schools to provide a rich and rewarding education for all children. She is a proud mother of three students at Northern Heights Elementary School (3rd, 4th, and 5th grades).

Wendy Barrett is the Principal for Northern Heights Elementary School, in Bellingham, WA. Wendy has been the school’s principal since its opening nearly ten years ago, and is committed to engaging all learners and their families in a healthy, inclusive, and rewarding educational experience.

Leanne Finlay is the Primary Years (International Baccalaureate) Program Coordinator for Northern Heights Elementary School, in Bellingham, WA. Leanne is the mother of two public school children, in the Bellingham School District, actively engaged in their learning. She is committed to the individual needs, interests, and talents of all students, with a particular focus on culturally sensitive practice.

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