A Seattle school's success story. Commitment and a shared set of values are the secret

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At Whitworth Elementary School, if you're sent to the office, chances are it's because you did something right, not wrong, and are being asked to share it. If you are ``caught'' by a staff member being a good citizen -- helping clean the lunchroom, picking up litter on the playground, or stopping an argument -- you might get a ``Caught Ya Ticket'' earning you a free popsicle Wednesday after school. Or if your class is voted by the staff as the ``most cooperative'' that week, your room will win the coveted Golden Wildcat Award, representing the school mascot.

Looking at the overcrowded, 83-year-old brick building on its postage stamp-sized grounds in a depressed urban area, one might not expect such a spirit of cooperation and friendliness. But at Whitworth, teamwork and caring are not a myth but the core of what makes this school tick.

``There's a shared commitment here,'' says principal John Morefield. ``This is not an institution built on [a] person. It's built on the rock of a collective set of values. And that's what endures.''

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Recognized by the Superintendent of Public Instruction as one of Washington state's top 10 elementary schools, Whitworth is a finalist this year for a US Department of Education Elementary School Recognition Award.

The largest of Seattle's 67 elementary schools, with over 600 students, it serves a neighborhood that reaches from one of the city's poorest areas to one of its most affluent on the shores of Lake Washington. Sixty percent of the children are from minority families, 40 percent are low income, and over half live with single parents.

Although Whitworth is described by parents and teachers alike as having a strong core, it recently had five principals within six years. ``The school,'' Mr. Morefield says, ``was like a group of great musicians needing a conductor.''

When he arrived as principal in the fall of 1984, the school was understaffed and the rules for discipline were not uniformly defined. ``There was no predictable way for making decisions,'' Morefield said.

The year prior to his arrival, the weekly number of students sent to the principal's office averaged around 50, and 84 children had been suspended. Morefield worked with the staff and teachers to develop a consistent philosophy of education and discipline in the school.

The resulting discipline policy is sent home to be signed by the parents of every child entering the school. Its focus is on cooperation and responsibility. It states: ``We believe that discipline is the self-control and good judgment each person develops in order to live and learn in society. . . . Because everyone makes mistakes, those mistakes in the area of discipline should be regarded as learning opportunities rather than as indications that a child is `bad.' ''

The results? This year, the number of kids sent to the office for discipline averaged six per week, and only four have been suspended.

This commitment to a spirit of cooperation is part of a whole school philosophy shared by teachers, administrators, and parents. Posted in big red letters on yellow paper on every classroom wall, Whitworth's Educational Philosophy affirms the belief that every child has the right and the responsibility to learn, to realize their academic, social, and emotional potential, and to have appropriate time and attention from the adults in their lives.

These adults, the parents, have long played an active role at Whitworth. Kris Morningstar, co-president of the PTSA, says ``for years there has been a core group of concerned, questioning parents.''

``Many teachers challenge the parents, as well,'' says Mrs. Morningstar. ``They make us accountable. My daughter's kindergarten teacher wanted to work with small reading groups. But she said plainly, `I need your help and commitment' at the first parent open house. And she got it.'' Whitworth parents provide between 100 and 150 hours of volunteer time each week.

If the dedicated core of teachers and parents has been the glue of Whitworth, the presence of a committed, strong leader has brought cohesion to the school.

``He listens,'' Morningstar says of principal Morefield. ``John has brought openness, sincerity, availability. He wants your input.''

When Morefield learned that only 20 percent of the black children in Seattle were earning C grades or better, for example, he met with staff and parents and they began to reexamine their own teaching effectiveness with the children. Along with in-school efforts, a Coalition for the Parents of Black Children was formed. They have met regularly to involve more parents, help them be more visible in the school, and learn better how to help the children achieve.

The children characterize their school as being ``OK, cool, nice, fun'' and, above all, ``friendly.''

A parent says, ``What hits me is the openness and warmth of the staff to whomever walks in the door.''

Even the building expresses a sense of welcome. A few years ago a parent painted the basement hallways from drawings done by students. Later, a local muralist completed the upper two floors. The once bleak, institutional halls have become a world of painted birds, flowers, and whales swimming down the stairwells.

Morefield says if he had to characterize Whitworth with a single word, it would be ``growing.'' There is, he says, ``continual seeking of new ideas by staff and parents in a school where parent involvement is phenomenally high.''

It is almost, he says, ``a private school at public expense: it has focus, a set of values, a shared culture, excellence of instruction, and the support of parents. But it isn't magic. It's replicable.''

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