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Zone offense helps district fight challenges of poverty

In response to two of its poverty-impacted schools being ranked in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, this Washington district pledged to tackle socioeconomic barriers to learning. Learn more about how this bold initiative produced dramatic academic gains.


Dr. Steve Webb, superintendent, and Tom Hagley, executive director of community and government relations, Vancouver Public Schools, Washington


  • In 2011, Zone schools outperformed non-Zone schools on state standardized tests in math, and performed equal to non-Zone schools in reading for the first time (overall performance improved in both groups of schools in both subjects).
  • Dramatic gains at two middle schools led to their removal from the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving schools,” and there are no district schools on this year’s list.


Vancouver, Washington, is a city of around 165,500, located just north of Portland, Oregon. About 22,500 children attend the city’s public schools. But as elsewhere, not all of those schools perform equally—and students affected by poverty often attend the lowest-performers. In the Vancouver district, approximately 54 percent of students qualify for federally subsidized meals, up from 39 percent six years ago. “Decades of experience and research have shown that unmet basic needs, family mobility, inadequate medical and dental care, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence and gang involvement adversely impact student achievement,” said Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.

Vancouver addressed the performance discrepancy head-on, spurred in part by the 2009-10 ranking of two of the district’s middle schools—Discovery and Jason Lee—in the 5 percent of the lowest performing schools in the state. In response to this federal “Tier II” designation, the district applied for a competitive school improvement grant under the rules outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When the grant proposal was not selected, the Vancouver school board and superintendent launched an aggressive district and community-based initiative to address learning and socio economic issues in several poverty-impacted schools.

“We identified an opportunity zone with 14 elementary, middle and high schools serving large concentrations of students affected by poverty and mobility,” said Webb. Approximately $1.5 million in categorical and basic education funds were redirected to the Opportunity Zone schools to help remove barriers to student success. Three goals focused the resources and work: 1) increase family and community engagement, 2) ensure high-quality instruction and 3) provide flexible learning environments at each of these schools.

Family-Community Resource Centers (FCRCs) were expanded to nine of the Opportunity Zone schools. FCRC coordinators worked with partners to provide basic needs support, parenting classes, early childhood education and other activities. A district family engagement coordinator provided outreach to non-English speaking families.

Discovery Middle School became an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme School, and several strategies were put in place to ensure high-quality instruction at all schools. Supplemental curriculum materials were purchased, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) was expanded, and professional development was focused on data-driven conversations and high-quality instructional practices. Creative scheduling allowed for student tutorial programs and block schedules at the secondary level. Homework clubs, summer programs and specialized technology increased student engagement.

“Thanks to the collective efforts of our teachers, staff, parents and partners, we are making tremendous progress,” said Webb. “And, we’re doing this work without any additional support or intervention from the state or federal government. These dramatic gains in student achievement are a testament to the focus, collaboration and commitment of our educators, our families and our community.”

From 2008-09 through 2010-11, all grade levels in Discovery and Jason Lee showed increases in the percentage of students meeting state standard in both reading and math. As examples, the percentage of Jason Lee eighth-graders meeting standard in reading increased from 56.7 percent to 69.9 percent (13.2 percentage point increase), while the number of eighth-graders meeting standard in math increased from 33.3 percent to 46.7 percent (13.4 percentage point increase). At Discovery, the percentage of sixth-graders meeting standard in math increased from 28.5 percent to 57.4 percent (28.9 percentage point increase), while the percentage of seventh-graders meeting standard in math increased from 30.6 percent to 48.1 percent (17.5 percentage point increase).

The dramatic gains in student achievement at Jason Lee Middle School led to its removal from the state’s list of “persistently low-achieving schools” in 2010. Discovery came off the list in this year, and no other Vancouver schools have been added.

Measures of Academic Progress results show that between 2008-09 and 2010-11, percentages of students meeting growth targets (calculated by NW Evaluation Assn.) in math increased across both Opportunity Zone and non-Opportunity Zone schools, with Opportunity Zone schools out-performing non-Opportunity Zone schools in 2010-11 (57 percent compared with 55 percent). The gap in this area is now closed. In reading, both Opportunity Zone and non-Opportunity Zone schools showed growth, with the gap closed for the first time in 2010-11 (52 percent for both sets of schools). In addition, the district’s investment in FCRCs has leveraged more than $1 million in partner contributions.

For additional information, please contact Tom Hagley, executive director of community and government relations, 360-313-1236.

Link to this story: http://www.learningfirst.org/zone-offense-helps-district-fight-challenges-poverty-0

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