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Originally Posted Thursday, September 05, 1996
Doors open today on Stanford's big experiment
by Dick Lilly
Seattle Times staff reporter

The doors of Seattle's Meany Middle School open today on school Superintendent John Stanford's first big experiment.

Not long ago considered the worst of the city's schools serving sixth- through eighth-graders, Meany begins classes this morning as a special math, science and arts magnet school - intended to be a model for others to copy, and the vanguard of the revolution in public education Stanford hopes to have in place by 1999.

Until Stanford stepped in with plans for the magnet school and talk of a laptop computer for every student, Meany hadn't been able to shake a bad reputation gained around 1990 when the district used the school as a catch-all for problem kids, a practice since ended.

There are already signs of a turnaround, at least in public interest.

Meany's enrollment is up nearly 30 percent - from 541 last fall, lowest of the city's 10 middle schools, to 694. All but 50 or so of last year's sixth- and seventh-graders are returning, and about 75 students in those grades have transferred to the school. The incoming sixth-grade class has 285 students, nearly doubling last year's incoming class of 155.

Only a few more youngsters will get in before enrollment reaches its maximum of 700, and there are waiting lists at every grade level, according to Marella Griffin, the school's new principal.

More significantly, the number of families making Meany their first choice more than tripled, from 82 to 278.

The magnet school has attracted families from all over the city. The incoming class is more balanced racially, too - 56 percent minority vs. 76 percent minority for the school last year, Griffin says.

One incentive: Stanford promised that Meany students would get their first choice of high schools, a real attraction for families wanting to be sure their kids would get to go to one of the big three - Franklin, Garfield and Roosevelt.

The focus on technology, commitment from parents and the enthusiasm of the school's staff led Esther Lucero-Miner, who lives in Wedgwood, to enroll her son, Roberto, at Meany. "All those things when you look at it in a package make it exciting," she said. "It's kind of fun to be in on the birth of something new."

In Seattle, the families of prospective sixth-graders make their school choices for the coming year in March.

Niklas Krumm is a new Meany sixth-grader, transferring from a private school. His family also considered Eckstein Middle School, which is closer to their Wallingford home. Without the new program, Meany would have been "in the middle or bottom of my list (of schools) based on reputation," said Niklas' mother, Karin Berghoefer-Krumm, who quickly became active on the parents curriculum advisory committee.

The new school is an opportunity for teachers, too, according to Bob Valiant, the house administrator - a kind of vice principal - whom Griffin brought from Madison Middle School in West Seattle, where she was principal for 10 years.

What's at stake at Meany is public education's claim it can do the job and regain public confidence, says Valiant.

"The educators here have been given an opportunity to show that," he said.

Gary Tubbs, the district's director of academic achievement, agrees. "Middle schools are the greatest challenge (with) the lowest amount of public confidence. . . . The other middle schools are going to pay attention to what's going on here. Meany's going to set a good example."

Two "luxuries" other schools don't share have made the difference for Meany, according to Tubbs. Thanks to Stanford and cooperation with the Seattle Education Association, the teachers union, Griffin has had unusual freedom to select her own staff, and she's had $310,000 in extra money in the form of a state magnet grant. Griffin's freedom to hire and the chance to work in a place where big changes are planned also attracted top teachers from other schools, among them Tommy Rose from Pathfinder, an alternative elementary; Anita Morales from Minor Elementary; and Jay Franco, who set up the highly regarded computer lab at Hawthorne Elementary.

Also from Hawthorne, Griffin got Leahe Seymour-Wilson, an extremely popular volunteer coordinator, known to everyone as "Mom," who will run the family center at Meany.

But getting a new staff for this year hit Meany's veterans hard, including a popular husband-and-wife teaching team, Ron and Gertie Vannoy, whose approach, according to Griffin, did not fit the new system.

Despite protests from disappointed parents, the Vannoys moved to Nathan Eckstein Middle School. In all, 19 of last year's staff of 31 teachers left or were asked to leave the school.

Griffin said she sought out elementary teachers for her new staff because she considered them better at teaching in long blocks than middle- and high-school faculty. Of those who left or were told they didn't fit at the new Meany, she said, many were too narrowly focused on a single subject and didn't have the breadth of experience - or lacked subject-matter endorsements on their teaching certificates - needed to handle the combined social studies-language arts and math-science blocks.

There are problems, too, with Stanford's promise to have laptop computers for all sixth- and seventh-graders. The district didn't get a crucial technology grant from the state. There's a second chance for the grant in November, but the laptop target has been cut back to 30 percent of students this year, according to Randy Carmical, school spokesman.

That's about the percentage of families who've said they can afford to buy or lease the computers, according to Griffin. Fund raising and perhaps a donation from the Alliance for Education, which supports Seattle public schools, could provide some machines for lower-income kids, she said, adding that more than half the school's families support the laptop plan. The computers cost $2,100, including a $300 insurance policy.

As the new school year begins, here are some of the major changes on which Griffin, her staff and parents have staked Meany's future:

-- A revised schedule: Four 80-minute classes a day instead of the six 50-minute periods still typical of most middle and high schools. As a result, teachers have only 90 kids (three classes of 30 and a planning period) each semester, instead of 150 (five classes of 30 and a planning period).

-- Block scheduling so youngsters study humanities (language arts and social studies) and math and science as part of the same group. The blocks organize kids into "houses," providing a comfortable small-school feeling within the larger school, according to Griffin.

-- "Looping." Humanities and math-science teachers will stay with the same youngsters for sixth and seventh grades, really getting to know them, before "looping" back to start with a new group of sixth-graders.

-- A daily "advisement period" of 25 or 30 minutes, with class size of only 18-20 kids. Advisement teachers will be each child's "advocate in the school" and a first line of contact for parents, says Griffin.

-- Extended day and Saturday schooling for kids who aren't up to grade level, paid for from the state magnet grant.

-- Japanese available as a foreign language to every sixth-grader and a choice of four languages - Spanish, French, Japanese and Latin, beginning in seventh grade.

-- A comprehensive family center in a redecorated room off the main hall to provide everything from a refuge for kids to social-service contacts for parents.

-- Uniforms - collared white shirts and dark pants or skirts for the kids. And a dress code for teachers: no jeans or miniskirts and no jogging suits, which have been a common sight in schools.

-- Nor will there be bells. Teachers and students will watch the clock, make their own decisions on when to quit or drift back to class from lunch. "It makes the environment quieter," says Griffin.

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