Culture computes in Washington's Kent School District

Culture computes in Washington's Kent School District

As the “globe” walks into this district, STEM and language programs are strengthened
The Kent School District in Washington has more diversity in its student body, greater achievement and better technology, in major part due to Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas.

Every day, students whose families speak among 138 different languages learn together in the classrooms at Kent School District in Washington. To address the linguistic and economic challenges for the 27,000 K12 students—the majority of whom receive free or reduced price lunch—administrators have worked hard to build innovative language and technology programs.

“I tell my kids, you’re so lucky to be educated in the Kent School District. Every day, the globe comes into our classrooms,” says Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas. Vargas was recently named the 2014 Superintendent of the Year by the Washington Association of School Administrators.

During the past decade, the district’s diversity has expanded dramatically, with the percentage of Hispanic students up from almost 7 percent in 2001-02 to roughly 19 percent in 2011-12. The percentage of Asian students is up from about 14 percent to 19 percent during the same time. Vargas says roughly 40 percent of families speak a language other than English at home.

Standardized test scores in the district, located between Seattle and Tacoma, are solidly above average, with most results in the 60 percent to 75 percent range at different grade levels and subjects.

District profile

Kent School District

      • Schools: 41
      • Students: 27,500
      • Staff and faculty: 1,450 teachers, 1,562 staff
      • Per child expenditure: $9,378
      • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 53%
      • Dropout Rate: 3%
      • www.kent.k12.wa.us

In addition, the district’s share of schools that rate as “very good” under the Washington State Accountability Index has risen from almost 3 percent in 2010 to almost 23 percent today. And the amount rated as “good” has risen from 25 percent to nearly 53 percent during the same period. The already low dropout rate has fallen from 7 percent during the 2008-09 school year to 3 percent now, Vargas says.

Business partners

District officials point to technology programs and a multicultural environment as big drivers of the continued successes. Vargas, in his fifth year with the district, says part of the technological success has been due to voter support for a $5 million per year classroom technology levy that has been renewed every four years for a dozen years; the next referendum will take place in February.

The ongoing technology line item has enabled Kent to move toward 1-to-1 computing, with laptops for grades seven through 12. Thuan Nguyen, Kent’s chief information & digital strategy officer, says the district has embarked upon a pilot for elementary schools with 2,000 devices at 11 schools. Every classroom and conference room has a SMART board, Nguyen says.

The district is also putting digital kiosks at “hotspots” throughout the community, particularly in “low-income, high-density housing, so kids have broadband connectivity to digital lessons,” Vargas says. Nguyen says that effort has received support from the King County Housing Authority, Multicare Health System and Absolute Software.

And some businesses have agreed to let students use their Wi-Fi networks, Nguyen says. For example, the Golden Steer Restaurant lets students use its catering facility as a homework center. Students’ access to digital lessons is further ensured through a program called STAR (Student Technology Access & Resources), successor to a program that began in 2003 called Bridging the Gap, which added together have provided computers to 3,300 lower-income families, Nguyen says.

These laptops are “retired” district computers that no longer meet state standards for districts to use, but they are refurbished by Kent students and software is donated, he says. Students train the families on the basics of digital literacy, including internet safety. Families also are shown how to check on student progress and access other district resources online.

“The big deal for us is just the amount of technology we’re able to provide, over the length of time we’ve been able to provide it, with all the changes in our community, with the diversity and increase in free and reduced-price lunch,” Nguyen adds.

Future tech careers

The Kent district is providing students at Kent-Meridian High School and Mill Creek Middle School with a taste of future technology careers through its Kent Technology Academy. The program integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for grades six through 12, often supported by partnerships with Microsoft, Boeing and other technology companies.

Students in the academy learn desktop publishing, digital imaging, video production, animation and digital music. “It gives [students] an opportunity to see the convergence around the changing workforce,” Vargas says. “It’s a confluence of forces that’s making STEM more and more of a highlight in terms of the direction we’re heading, particularly in the Puget Sound region, where we have advanced manufacturing, aerospace—and we’re the home of Microsoft. That’s all you hear up here.”

Work done by academy students is put on display at the district’s annual technology exposition, which is held at a hockey arena called the ShoWare Center. Students exhibit work in areas ranging from biotechnology to 3D printing, and around the perimeter of the hall, high-tech companies exhibit their latest innovations—and give the students a sense of what skills they will need to become successful later in life.

More than 5,700 people attended the event in January 2013, says Vargas, which vendors and others in the education field have told district personnel makes it the largest such event put together by a school district nationwide. Event planner Stanley “Stosh” Morency says the expo takes 18 months to plan, relies on about $20,000 to $30,000 annually in sponsorships, and involves everyone from students to teachers to the superintendent.

Steeped in student backgrounds

Another area where Kent stands out is its adaptation to the different backgrounds of its students, Vargas says. Rosa Villarreal, director of multilingual education, says the district gives each school the New Country Index, an online tool that provides information about the educational backgrounds of people from outside the U.S. This helps teachers better understand their students. “We’re trying to build bridges between what [students] need to know, and what we need to teach,” Villarreal says.

The district also dedicates a full-time staff person to providing cultural training, so teachers and staff gain a deeper understanding of students’ culture. For example, in November, the cultural liaison met with the staff of an elementary school that has more than 70 refugees. The staff learned about the culture of parenting and discipline techniques in their homelands, and their families’ educational expectations.

And the district has a program called the Parent Academy for Student Achievement that helps parents from diverse backgrounds become involved in their children’s education, she says. The program helps parents understand how the school system functions and how they can best advocate for their children.

More periodic campus program reviews track how students learning English as a second language are faring and ensure that teachers are using best practices to boost achievement. Administrators learn if schools are providing extra help before or after school.

Villarreal says her position was created nearly two years ago in response to the changing demographics. “I look at my job as providing focus and clarity around systemic responses for ELL,” and ensuring equitable access to standards-based instruction, she says.

Vargas says that the district’s work in technology, science careers, multilingual education and other areas will continue to pay off.

District leaders continue to brainstorm around the question, “How do we continue to build on that technology and the strength of the district to meet our changing demographics,” Vargas says. The combination of programs, he adds, “is a tremendous opportunity for our kids to prepare for living in a global society at such an early age.”

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill.


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