The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Andrew Christiansen

Lyle School District charts new path


Andrew Christiansen

KEEPING IT SMALL: A key part of the new approach at Lyle Schools is to keep classes together and keep learning groups small by creating work stations for students to rotate through. The system has been instituted at K-5 at Dallesport this school year.

A transformation is taking place at Lyle Schools. Following years of turmoil, the school seems to be recovering from the brink of disaster. In 2012, the school was described by Tom Merlino as a failure and was placed under the management of the state through OSPI and ESD112 under what were called binding conditions. Merlino was appointed by ESD112 to help the district make the hard cuts that would make the district solvent. The outlook was dim with the school on a trajectory towards dissolution.

Today there is a new spirit at the school, one of positive attitudes, cooperation and high expectations. No longer bankrupt, the school is planning a future based on the logo "all means all." It is the mantra of new Superintendent, Andy Kelly, and it means there is a renewed level of commitment to student success.

Lyle voters soundly rejected two maintenance and operation levies in 2012. The budget had faded to the background and strong opposition toward the school administration became the central issue. It led to the school being underfunded, and while he left on his own volition, Superintendent Martin Huffman was forced out. It may have been the district's darkest hour, but it was also the turning point.

The change began under the leadership of Dr. Glenys Hill, who was hired as a part time superintendent in August, 2012. Hill was seen as a tough, principled leader who had two issues on her plate, resurrect productive dialog within the community and fix the budget. Hill brought the public into the conversation and the school board adopted the strict cuts laid out by Merlino. The next year, Lyle passed a maintenance and operations levy and the district began to heal.

Hill left in June 2014 and was replaced by Brian Carter. During Carter's tenure, Kelly was a frequent visitor as the person at OSPI who oversaw some of the grant money that was going to Lyle Schools. It allowed Kelly to get a close look at the situation in Lyle and he was able to formulate ideas about what changes he thought had to be made to revitalize the school.

Carter resigned after one year and the Lyle School Board asked Kelly if he would be interested in the job. Kelly had made a name for himself by resurrecting failing schools in Portland and Reno. He worked as a consultant and was hired by OSPI to administer the funds that were directed towards 290 failing schools in Washington, including Lyle. He had concluded from his experience in Lyle that a lot of money was being poured into the district with little to show for it. Kelly says that after being in consulting for several years, he felt he needed to get back into school to prove to himself he could still make a poor performing school into a high performing school, so he took the job.

Early in Kelly's career, he worked five years as an assistant principal at Chehalis and Yelm. In his first principal job at Clover Park, he received a $10 million Bill and Melinda Gates grant to create small learning communities. That approach, much refined over the years, is at the core of Kelly's approach for converting low performing schools into high performing schools.

Kelly began by restructuring the administration with the blessing of the school board. Kelly is the superintendent/principal for kindergarten through high school. He recruited a former co-worker from Reno, Sarah Russell to be the assistant principal for K-12. It is a straight-forward chain of command with all issues addressed by Kelly.

Kelly then went to work with the community and the faculty at Dallesport to restore preschool. Kelly says "the strategy was to stop the bleeding right out of the chute." The bleeding Kelly referred to was the loss of students and school support funds. "Lyle was in a reactive mode," says Kelly. "Double levy failure caused resources to shrink, which caused programs to go away, which caused kids to go away." Lyle was losing students each year, mostly to White Salmon.

Pre-school was a casualty of the budget chaos of 2012. Restoring preschool was an important step, not only to get students aligned with Lyle Schools, but it was an important first step towards student achievement. "This group of preschoolers will be the first in three or four years to enter Kindergarten. They will enter at a higher place, so we changed the trajectory of their achievement."

The other part of stopping the bleeding, says Kelly "requires building programs that keep kids engaged here, accelerate the learning so they can achieve more here, so that next year when parents consider where to go, they have a vibrant opportunity in Lyle."

That is where the small learning communities concept comes in. Kelly saw quality educational staff at Dallesport trying to deal with the lower achieving students in a way he says was ineffective. The system in play separated the low achieving students from their peers and worked with them in a separate part of the building. The change put the students back in class with their classmates and set up small group learning stations for students to rotate through. In addition, Russell reworked the schedule to allow larger blocks of time devoted to math and English language arts. The system allows educators to give more individualize attention to the students, focusing on where they are as individuals instead of where the class is as a group.

Along with that change was the adoption of a single curriculum to provide continuity between grade levels. Kelly says the faculty had already done the research on it, so it was just a matter of investing in one. The curriculum they selected has flex to accommodate learners at low and high levels, which fits the small group approach.

The changes came easily at the K-5 campus. Moving sixth grade to the high school is helping with the transition of curriculum between sixth and seventh grades.

One of the more ambitious goals for Kelly is to change the ethos at the school. Kelly is taking a team approach and he started with a three-day summer institute for all classifications of employees. "Everyone, from certified to classified, teachers and maintenance crew are involved in the success of our students," says Kelly.

He instituted a Code of Cooperation that includes things like, assume best intentions, prioritize time around students' needs, and value and honor the contributions and strengths of each stakeholder. It also defines the path for communication with all questions and concerns going to Kelly.

"We have an incredible group of committed adults interested in thinking about doing things differently. Kelly says he is determined to eliminate distrust between faculty members and between faculty and administration. "Performance discussions are never through the lens of do this or be fired. Always, how do we do better for our kids," says Kelly.

Faculty are on board. Union president Joe Bales says they now have an "on-going dialog about things, as opposed to being directed. Andy's contacts are inspiring. We spend a lot of time breaking down old traditions," says Bales.

Bales also points to Kelly's motto, "all means all." It means it is no longer acceptable for kids to fail. Any kid who fails a class receives an incomplete and can redo and improve their grades.

"We don't have one and done. We are working toward mastery," says Kelly. Bales likes the approach and poses the question, "Is giving a poor grade due to failed homework a true account of what a student knows?"

Three times a week, the high school prints a list of students who are failing a course. It triggers extra time devoted toward helping the student succeed. That may include after school programs, working with the family and individual instruction. Bales says they are using creativity and new teaching styles to make school more in tune to the individuals. "If you don't fit the box, we change the shape of the box, and that's pretty dynamic when you think of it," says Bales. "I love what we are doing."

There is also a recognition that some students will not succeed in the traditional way. Russell says they are looking to create a kind of "school within the school" and offer a GED program for those students.

The change is also occurring among classified staff, says Jennifer Machado, their president. She says students even have a different attitude coming to the office. "They see us as being there to support them," says Machado. "It is a much more positive environment, the way school is meant to be."

Machado is also in charge of the school's web page. It has a new Facebook connection and includes student and teacher pages. It allows more communication between students and teachers. It also allows the school to provide free software to students and their families.

Another way they are changing the ethos at the school, according to Kelly, is that he sought and received the blessing of the community to go to a one-hour late start on Wednesdays. That hour is now devoted to teacher in-service, which is helping teacher collaboration and sharing of new ideas for student success. Russell says that there were quality teachers working in anonymity because they felt unappreciated and didn't want people peering into what they were doing. With the help of the in-service, there is more respect for professionalism and more open dialog.

There still remains the issue of finances. Lyle School ran a deficit from 2008 through 2012, draining their reserves. The school lost $254,000 over four years. By the end of the 2012-13 year, the school was already in the black, but they were not over the hump. There was not much money in reserve and if they were to thrive, they would need to restore some of the programs that had been cut in 2012. Under Hill's leadership, the district passed a levy for $627,000 in 2013. The amount was $131,000 less than the failed levies. Whereas the failed levies received just 47 and 43 percent yes votes, the passed levy had a resounding 60 percent yes vote. Two months ago, the school paid off the bond which built Dallesport School. That is a positive sign.

The next task for Kelly is to deal with sustainability. Kelly says there was no plan for replacing things like carpet and basic maintenance inside and outside the buildings. He is conducting a district review of the grounds and maintenance to develop a plan that will be covered in a future capital improvement levy. They are also looking to fill what Kelly says is a technology gap by putting a computer in the hands of every student. He envisions students checking out something like Chrome books at the start of the year and have access to it at home to allow better access to learning materials and teachers.

Andrew Christiansen

HANDICRAFT WITH THE ARTS: Students in Lyle work on craft projects.

It is just six months into the new administration, so there is much to be done before the school is truly over the hump, but it feels like success. And, there is evidence that there is success in the most important of functions, student success. Russell shared a tool the school is using to measure achievement. Kelly says it is important to measure individual change, not just look at some standard number to assess achievement. The data Russell is looking at measures students against their peers across the nation and it reports in terms of grade level achieved. Several students have already advanced one or two grades in math and English. For those who started behind, they are catching up. For those who were high achievers, they are continuing to grow. In the end, this will be the ultimate measure of whether this transformation will create a new era for Lyle Schools.


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