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Behind the test scores: What is Federal Way school's secret to success?

You could say Sacajawea Middle School has won the lottery. That is, if winning lottery is done not by picking lucky numbers, but by improving state educational testing scores.

Sacajawea was one of a number of schools across the state that was awarded an unsolicited $30,000 grant to find out how the school closed its achievement gap — the disparity on state test scores between ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

The grant was awarded by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and is called the School to School program. Sacajawea will use the money to study its success in closing the achievement gap, then share that information with a partner school in the grant, Hudtloff Middle School in the Clover Lake School District.

Principal David Brower said he knows a few things the school has done right, but will use the money to more intensively find out why.

“The main purpose of this grant is for us to share our story,” he said. “We're going to go and find out what we're doing right, or find out what's not working.”

The state chose schools for the grant that had closed the achievement gap in reading, writing and math over the past three years, based on results from seventh-grade state test data that reflected a diverse student body.

The $30,000 will be used to compensate staff for working on the project and to host events for parents.

Nathan Olson, OSPI spokesman, said the grant is not awarded to schools that are seeing higher test scores, but specifically ones that are closing the achievement gap. The partner schools, he said, are the ones that need help in closing the gap. The end result is for both schools to learn from each other and permanently close the gap.

Brower said that one strategy of the school is to ensure that teaching is standardized. Concepts are taught and talked about the same way as students progress from grade to grade. Brower also stresses the importance the school places on close relationships with the students’ families.

“It's about having a welcoming environment, reaching out and not being complacent,” Brower said. “We're proactive and call and talk to the families, letting them know how they can stay involved.”

The school also partners with outside groups, like the Boys and Girls Club, to mentor students.

But there’s still a lot to find out, and there’s no “silver bullet,” he says.

By December, Sacajawea Middle school will have assembled a team of teachers, administrators and parents to go out into the community and “gather the information that test scores don’t tell us.” This means gathering anecdotes about what is working — and what is not working. They will also be analyzing a lot of test data.

A final analysis will be ready to be shared with Hudtloff Middle School by February.

Brower is excited about the opportunity to share knowledge with Clover Park “because we don't get that enough, to visit other schools and classrooms and learn from them,” he said. “We sit together at conferences, but to see them in their building and see us in our building is a much different scenario.”

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