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Can you turn around a struggling school without tearing it down?

Baker marquee_0.jpg
Gabriel Spitzer

School districts are often encouraged to make sweeping changes in order to lift up low-achieving schools. Shutting a school down and overhauling it or replacing most of the staff are among the solutions favored by federal officials these days. But one struggling school in Tacoma is taking an opposite approach: they’re doubling down on the teachers they already have.

Tearing down a school and rebuilding it can be disruptive for students and the community, not to mention staff. So Baker Middle School Principal Steve Holmes and the district decided to take a chance: instead of throwing the staff out, they would try to get every teacher at Baker into the prestigious National Board Certification process.

It amounted to a test of an idealistic notion: we don’t have to engineer a shiny new, elite staff to turn a school around. With the right tools, ordinary teachers can become superstars.

“We were given a golden opportunity, based on the trust. If we didn’t have that, the district would have said, well, let’s start over,” Holmes said.

National Board Certification is a rigorous process. Teachers write lengthy essays, take high-stakes tests and review video of their teaching with a panel of colleagues acting as critics. Staffers compared it to adding a second job or a year of grad school on to their full-time teaching duties. It was a risky wager on the existing teachers, with all of them keeping one eye at all times on the next round of test scores.

Almost a year after the whole school threw itself into this process, in the last week of summer vacation, the new test scores came out. To hear how Baker did, click the “Listen” button above.

Whatever the scores show, people at Baker say their strategy is already making a difference. They say you can feel it in the classrooms and hear it in the teachers lounge chatter. And Steve Holmes says watching his teachers push so hard to improve has only deepened his faith in them.

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.
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