Unusual school, unusual scores

First in a two-part series about Green Gables Elementary School and its non-traditional approach to teaching. On April 30: Every day is like a birthday party, except learning is the 'present.'


Staff writer

At a time when local schools face the huge challenge of helping unprecedented numbers of their students pass new standardized tests, one school, Green Gables Elementary, is being recognized nationally for its success on the math section of the WASL, perhaps the test’s hardest section.

The success may be related to the school’s non-traditional methods.

Gone are the desks in rows. Instead, each classroom feels more like a living room in a clean, comfortable home.

Also gone is the fearsome principal who only deals out disciplinary lectures. Instead, leading the school is principal Diane Holt, who is at times rushed by students for a hug and has lunch with the kids every Friday.

Gone, too, are rigid grades. Students receive neither As nor Fs. Instead, they earn designations that speak of their location on a journey of progress.

But most notably, gone are the single-grade classes. Instead, children are placed in multi-age classrooms, where they will spend three years of their school lives with one teacher and many students of varying ages, stages and grades.

But in case that seems too warm and fuzzy, a hard fact: In 2000, 52 percent of Green Gables’ fourth-graders passed the math section of the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning). In 2002, 67 percent passed. The 15 percent gain was better than the average gains in either the Federal Way Public Schools system or statewide.

Holt gives much of the credit to the Everyday Mathematics program, developed by the University of Chicago. In the kindergarten-through-second-grade class, a book is used which has problems like 36 + (blank) = 40. While it appears to be a problem of addition, it is actually algebraic. Everyday Mathematics exposes kids at young ages to many math strands such as algebra, geometry, statistics and probability, not just the strand called numeration to which belong addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

“These are the items on the WASL that kids have never seen and people think are so hard,” Holt said. But she added that kids’ minds are wide open and they are able to learn such things.

Yet, in a surprising twist, Everyday Mathematics will not be chosen by the school district as its math program for the years to come. The program did not achieve support from a committee that was to recommend a new math text for the coming year. The committee recommended two other texts that more closely matched the district standards. Green Gables can, however, apply for a waiver so that its teachers may continue to use the program if they are not satisfied with whatever new program is selected by the School Board. Holt expressed confidence that given a good program that exposes children to the variety of math strands, her school would continue to produce good results.

Green Gables’ success extends to other subjects. On the reading portion of the WASL, 86 percent of the fourth-graders passed last year, one of the state’s best scores. However, only 47 percent passed the writing portion. Holt expects that by focusing on writing, her students will achieve gains similar to those they made in math.

“My main goal is for the students to be well-rounded,” Holt said. “I want them to have the skills to meet the state standards, but I also want them to love to learn, love to read, love to do math and problem solve. I want them to have the ability to ask questions and find the answers.”

Staff writer Kenny Ching: 925-5565,

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