Despite demographic disadvantage, Federal Way school bucks achievement gap

Federal Way’s Star Lake Elementary School has earned a 2010 “Schools of Distinction” award from a Washington educational consulting firm, which recognizes ongoing improvements at the school based on state testing scores.

The recognition is more remarkable for Star Lake because it has a student population that, according to national educational standards, is demographically disadvantaged.

The Center for Educational Excellence compiled yearly test data from 2005, and each year on, to find schools that improved.

“This is not an award for the best or highest performing schools,” said Greg Lobdell, co-president of the center. “Rather, this an award that's about improvement.”

Star Lake fourth-graders scored higher — sometimes by 20 percentage points — on standardized tests compared to nearby Valhalla Elementary School, according to state test scores from the 2009-2010 school year. Valhalla also has a majority Hispanic population, and more than half its students received free or reduced lunch.

Here’s the improvement: For the 2008-2009 school year, 64 percent, 48 percent and 51 percent of Star Lake fourth-graders were proficient in reading, math and writing, respectively. In 2009-2010, 74 percent, 80 percent and 75 percent were proficient in these respective categories.

Star Lake’s population is overwhelmingly Hispanic compared to five years ago, when it was majority white. Principal Mindy Thompson said that 40 percent of the population lives in a non-English speaking home, and 61 percent receive free or reduced lunch — double the 2005 number.

The difference between higher and lower performing groups is known as the “achievement gap.” According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results, minority students are largely on the wrong side of that gap compared to their white counterparts. For example, 89 percent of white students in Washington state, the majority racial group, were proficient on the 2009 NAEP math test; 71 percent and 69 percent of blacks and Hispanics, respectively, were proficient.

Thompson could not pin the progress of Star Lake on a specific policy, program or style of teaching.

“The biggest difference is recognizing the change that is happening at Star Lake and being honest and responding to it,” she said of the school’s changing demographics. “And making plans to address gaps. But more than that it's heart. It's a passion for teaching.”

There are programs in place. Students who score below standard are put in smaller learning groups. Meetings are held each week to look at the progress of students who are lagging to figure out what the child needs. One highlight is looping classes, where teachers will continue to instruct the same group of students as they change grade levels.

“My personal philosophy is that learning occurs best in a long-term relationship with teachers over time and across grades,” Thompson said.

The “distinction” award used to be given out by the state and came with a $10,000 award, but the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction dropped the award in 2009, said Lobdell of the Center for Educational Excellence. His organization, which works as a paid consultant for many districts across the state, picked up the slack, but cannot afford to give out money.

“It’s an avenue to share what’s going on in these buildings,” he said.

Star Lake was one of 94 schools across the state recognized with the award. Star Lake also won the award in 2008.

Since the award does not bring any cash to the school, Thompson said she and her staff will use the recognition to re-energize and move forward. The school will soon begin using AVID Elementary, a college readiness program, and will continue to work to close the achievement gap.

The award “affirms we're on the right track,” Thompson said. “It gives us new energy to move forward with our work.”

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