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School Choices 

Why we love our "failing" school

Winooski has a great reputation when it comes to live music and trendy restaurants. People often refer to it as "Burlington's Brooklyn." But you don't hear much praise for Winooski's public schools. The general consensus is that they're "bad."

My partner, Ann-Elise, and I have lived in the Onion City since 2003. Our son, Graham, is 7; our daughter, Ivy, just turned 5. We hear negative comments about the schools all the time — at cocktail parties, backyard barbecues, family gatherings.

At city hall years ago, a municipal employee even tried to convince Ann-Elise to send Graham to the Catholic school up the street. He would be "safe" there, she said, implying that he was at risk in Winooski's public schools.

This, understandably, freaked us out. Where you send your kids to school is one of the most important decisions you make as a parent, and we didn't want to screw this one up.

That anxiety is partly to blame for all the young families leaving our city for South Burlington, Essex and Williston — we've known at least three families with little kids who have mentioned this explicitly as a reason for moving elsewhere.

"We have a PR problem," concedes school board member Tori Cleiland, whose daughter, Anna, is a fourth grader; her younger daughter, Eliza, starts kindergarten this fall. When you tell people that you have kids in Winooski schools, Cleiland says, "They kind of look at you like you're a bad parent: 'Why in the world would you send your kid to that school?'"

At the root of this bad rep are Winooski's student scores on the New England Common Assessment Program, the primary standardized measurement of school performance. Winooski students from third through eighth grade who took the NECAP earlier this year scored a depressing 14 to 19 percentage points below the statewide average in reading and math. The high school scores were even lower.

On paper, it would seem that Winooski schools are some of the worst in Vermont.

But Ann-Elise and I don't buy it. After researching the school and getting to know other parents, we decided to send Graham to Winooski's JFK Elementary School. Now both of our kids are enrolled there. Graham is in second grade; Ivy is in kindergarten. After two years in the system, we think Winooski's elementary school is actually pretty great; the test scores simply don't tell the whole story.

Graham loves school. He's had fantastic teachers. He's testing at above grade level. So far, Ann-Elise and I would give JFK an "A."

We're not alone — there are other active, engaged parents like us who are excited about JFK.

Cleiland has been in Winooski as long as we have. When Anna was about to enter kindergarten, in 2009, Cleiland and her husband had the option of enrolling her at Williston Central School, where Cleiland worked as a special educator.

The differences between Williston and Winooski are stark: for starters, Census data in recent years shows that the median household income in Williston is about $97,000; in Winooski, it's roughly $45,000. Cleiland found the atmosphere of the two schools to be "completely different ... It was like walking into a cathedral versus walking into a 1950s grocery store." Winooski had an unappealing air of "old industrialness," she says.

But Cleiland stuck it out, in part because Winooski offers something Williston doesn't: diversity. Just 61 percent of JFK students are white; it's truly a multi-ethnic, multi-racial environment. Seventy-eight percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, which means it's socio-economically diverse, as well.

About 27 percent of the students at JFK are in the English Language Learner program. They're immigrants and refugees from countries all over the world, which creates an atmosphere of cross-cultural exchange.

Such opportunities aren't measured by the NECAP — at least not in a positive way. Students who may not speak English yet have to take the same tests as their native-born classmates, even if they can't understand the questions. Not surprisingly, that results in lower test scores. The same goes for children struggling with poverty. Schools all over the state are failing to meet the needs of kids in those two areas, and Winooski has more of those students than most Vermont districts.

For Cleiland, who grew up in Georgia in the 1970s, the school's mixed student body is a plus. "From a personal standpoint, from my own history," she says, the school's diversity is "amazing."

It's important to Arica Bronz, too. Her daughter, Linden, is in fifth grade; her son, Jonah, is starting kindergarden. Most of Linden's friends are of other races and from other cultures.

Bronz was somewhat wary of the school at first. "I was worried," she recalls, before she enrolled her daughter in kindergarten at JFK. "I was scared."

But she says she's appreciated the way the teachers and administrators have accommodated Linden, who is testing above grade level. "What's been great for us is how they've met her," she says.

Bronz points out that the staff has been very flexible whenever her daughter has expressed interest in programs outside the normal curriculum. Last year, they let the fourth grader practice violin twice a week with the high school orchestra. This year, Linden will spend one day a week at an alternative, outdoor-education program called Crow's Path; we're sending Graham there, too.

Kate Simone has had a similar experience with her son, Leo, a first grader. We met them because Leo was in Graham's reading group last year. He's a year younger than Graham, but his kindergarten teacher moved him up into a more advanced group of older kids. "I think Leo had a great time," says Simone.

A senior editor/production specialist for Burlington's Tetra Tech ARD, Simone says she's also enjoyed being involved at the school. She and her husband, Justin, a welder, have lived in Winooski for years, but haven't gotten to know many people until now. She says she was "totally thrilled" with the "nonthreatening" atmosphere of the school community. "I just love the fact that I can go in there and get to know everybody," she says.

One of the ways Simone has gotten involved is through the newly formed Parents and Community Together with Schools, or PACTS — Ann-Elise is also part of the group. Members helped organize a new welcome-to-school barbecue for incoming kindergarteners in June 2012. Last April, some of them, including Simone, helped organize a Spring Into the Arts event, which brought student artists out into the community. There definitely seems to be an active group of involved parents at the elementary school level.

Another positive development: Last year, JFK adopted a new set of expectations for student behavior known as STARS, which stands for Striving, Thoughtful, Accepting, Responsible and Safe. It's a discipline program that encourages teachers and students to define productive and unproductive behavior in the moment and keep track of it over time. The teachers and kids set goals and earn rewards for meeting them.

It sounds cheesy, but it seems to be working. My son talked about it all year, and still wears his STARS T-shirt; a fifth grader I met one Saturday morning at the city library told me, unprompted, that the STARS program had gotten him "to do stuff" at school that he hadn't cared about before.

JFK administrators have also proven responsive to parent input. When the school was struggling with student behavior problems two years ago, Cleiland suggested a "social thinking" learning curriculum she liked. The school embraced it and rolled it out last year. It teaches kids — and adults — to articulate their thoughts and reactions in a new way. Unproductive habits become villains called "The Unthinkables," including Rock Brain, Mean Jean and Grump-Grumpaninny.

Here's how a typical worksheet describes Rock Brain: "When Rock Brain gets into a person's head, he will get the person to do only what he wants to do and will not let him negotiate with other people."

The kids "fight" him by learning social strategies that help them self-regulate. An example: "Take a deep breath and remember that being part of a group means that you cannot always do it your way or make the decisions you want."

I was skeptical about all this at first, but a few months into the year, we actually started using it at home.

JFK principal Mary O'Rourke credits these initiatives — and the work of two new school-wide reading and math coaches — for JFK's rise in last year's NECAP scores. "Our math scores went up 7 percent last fall," she notes proudly. "Reading scores went up 4 percent."

Although she recognizes the need for accountability, O'Rourke questions an assessment that takes a single snapshot of student learning and uses it to rate achievement.

She and other administrators and school board members favor assessing student growth over time and measuring how far they've come. They point out that, if you dig into the numbers, you can make the case that they're doing a good job with the population they serve.

Houda Musanovic isn't that concerned about the numbers. "It doesn't matter, the NECAPs," she says. "It matters what my son is getting, what my son is learning."

Musanovic, who works as a dental assistant, came to the U.S. from Morocco in 2001. Her fourth-grade son was born here but is in the ELL program at Winooski; both she and her husband speak English with Arabic accents, which can skew their son's pronunciation.

Musanovic was one of four interpreters at a recent school board-sponsored community dinner, which drew about 80 parents and school officials. When I asked her afterward if she'd heard about the negative perception of the schools, she said yes — her friends are "shocked" when they find out her son goes to Winooski. They ask her why.

"For them, it's more important, the numbers." But so far, she says, "I am happy with it."

What About Winooski Middle-High School?

I spoke with many parents for this story, all of whom were uniformly happy with JFK Elementary School. But almost all of them expressed concern about Winooski's combination middle-high school.

Winooski Middle-High School's 2012 NECAP scores were even lower than JFK's. For example, 95 percent of 11th graders failed to meet proficiency in science; 91 percent failed to meet proficiency in math. And because of its small size, the school has far fewer options for electives, language classes and advanced-placement courses than most Burlington-area middle and high schools.

Everyone agrees that it's possible to get a great education there — last year's salutatorian, Canary Ly, is proof of that. Her family came to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 3; she's headed to Middlebury College this fall.

But the school is clearly struggling to meet the needs of all of its students. "We've got a long way to go," says principal Leon Wheeler. "There's no doubt about that."

There does seem to be a new sense of optimism, though, fueled in part by new leadership. With the exception of JFK, run by veteran teacher and administrator Mary O'Rourke, the district has been plagued in the past few years by inconsistent administration.

Wheeler is in his second year at the high school; he has a new assistant principal this year. Over the past 10 years, Winooski has had four different superintendents. Sean McMannon, number five, arrived over the summer. One parent described him as "an Energizer bunny."

McMannon, 44, got his first teaching gig in the Peace Corps in Botswana. He and his wife later taught at a school in an Eskimo village in Alaska. He did a stint as a special educator at a school in urban Boston before landing at CVU in Hinesburg, where he was principal for eight years.

He's already been building relationships in the community — something other administrators haven't always done. At a recent community dinner at Winooski's O'Brien Community Center, he diligently filled a poster-size pad of paper with comments from parents.

In a subsequent interview, McMannon explained his five-point plan, which includes increasing collaboration and communication between the elementary and middle-high school — something that seems to be on everyone's radar.

He's eager to get started. "I just can't wait for the students to get here," he enthuses.

Winooski's part-time curriculum coordinator, Jan Willey, echoes his optimism. The 66-year-old administrator was brought in last year as a temporary replacement for someone who went on maternity leave. The staff asked her to stick around for another year — and she is.

Willey doesn't need the job. She spent 10 years in special ed and another 25 as an assistant superintendent in Addison County, and had more or less retired. She says she's staying in Winooski because she sees progress. She cites the new leadership team and new collaborations such as the Burlington-Winooski Partnership for Change, a multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant-funded effort to reenvision the two communities' schools.

"If I wasn't optimistic," she says, "there's no way I would be coming back this year."

Linda Gregoire, whose daughter is entering seventh grade this year, is somewhat encouraged by their outlook. I ran into Gregoire and her daughter at the city library just before school started. Her daughter said she might want to go to a bigger high school — while she and her mom loved JFK, neither has been thrilled with the transition to middle school.

Regarding the school's plans for improvement, Gregoire echoed something I heard from other middle-high school parents: Talking the talk is different from walking the walk.

When I tell Wheeler about reactions like Gregoire's, he says he understands that skepticism. But he feels confident that the pieces are in place to ignite students' passion for learning and help them achieve proficiency.

"It is going to happen in Winooski," he says. "There's absolutely no question in my mind."

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