Students at Spiritridge Elementary and Highland Middle School are gaining ground in math and reading.

Spiritridge and Highland are among 101 schools in Washington state named Schools of Distinction by The Center for Educational Effectiveness for 2014. To qualify, schools must be in the top 5 percent of improvement in math and reading on state tests. This is the fourth year Spiritridge has been named a School of Distinction and the first for Highland.

Staff attribute success to an ongoing dialogue between teachers, students and community groups that inspires students to learn.

Creating Success Early

“We are constantly and consistently reviewing student progress,” said Spiritridge Principal Alexa Allman. “At our school we work together as a community to ensure we are meeting the needs of each and every child.”

Part of the work at Spiritridge includes teachers implementing research-based and differentiated instructional strategies in the classroom.

Spiritridge fourth grade teacher Catherine Guilford stressed the importance of differentiated instruction and student self-assessment. Students in Guilford’s class use “Claim, Evidence, Reasoning” strategies to explain their thinking in pictures, numbers and words in mathematics. They also use a rubric to self-assess their work before handing it in. This approach gives students the chance to think about what they know and why they know it Guilford explained. “It also lets them find out what they don’t know and why they don’t know it. Most importantly they learn to make a plan to learn it,” she said.

Brooke Cooley, who teaches fifth grade at Spiritridge, has been focusing on helping students build their vocabulary and think critically about what they read to support students in reading.

“I have worked to improve my student’s ability to discuss their reading and generate questions to enhance their involvement and deepen their comprehension of the given text,” Cooley said.

Bridging the Achievement Gap

At Highland the school-wide strategy to improve student learning and test scores at the middle school level began with offering new programs and focusing on creating a culture of universal achievement.

“Essentially it’s making sure kids are engaged in high levels of thinking,” Highland Principal Anissa Bereano said. “It has been an ongoing shift.”

For the past several years that shift has meant a slew of new programs at Highland with a focus on closing the achievement gap. One such example that has rolled out school-wide is the AVID program and its WICOR strategy where teachers guide students through Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading as they work through new material. The key piece, Bereano said, is giving all students the tools to apply what they learn in class.

“Staff have been working on making sure that there is a clear learning objective and that kids understand it and why it’s important,” Bereano said.

Teachers have also been focused on goal setting with students, using a student’s individual data to help them identify what they want to achieve next.

“Students also know that we, the staff at Highland, believe in them and that translates to a belief in themselves and their abilities,” Highland teacher Nicole Andrade said. “Students aren’t afraid to try new things or learn difficult material because they’re confident.”

Lisa McDaniel, who teaches language arts at Highland, agreed.

“Their mindset is that of students who know that progress is not only achievable, but is an expectation they have for themselves,” McDaniel said.

Continuing to Grow

The staff at both schools are excited about the learning they see students engaging in, and are looking forward to building upon this success.

Bereano said that being recognized for achievement builds the school community and shows students and staff alike that hard work pays off.

Going forward McDaniel said that she and her fellow teachers will continue to refine their teaching strategies and interventions as well as exploring new methods to help students grow.

“So many people have worked so hard to see that each and every student gets the support they need at each stage in their journey,” McDaniel said. “When they are successful, it makes all of that work worthwhile.”

The introduction of the elementary STEM program at Bellevue’s elementary schools also offers new growth opportunities.

“I see STEM as a positive trend toward increasing student engagement, communication skills, problem solving, as well as the social and emotional literacy that is needed to work effectively with groups,” Cooley said.

At the middle school level, Andrade said she wants to continue to show students the “how” and “why” of what they are being taught.

“I want to continue to show students how what we’re learning now is going to be applicable to them later on,” Andrade said. “I want that buy in to continue because when that buy in is there, the learning happens.”

An awards reception honoring local School of Distinction winners will be held at the Puget Sound Educational Service Center in Renton on Nov. 5. To learn more about The Center for Educational Effectiveness visit

The Bellevue School District acknowledges that we learn, work, live and gather on the Indigenous Land of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Snoqualmie Tribes. We thank these caretakers of this land, who have lived and continue to live here, since time immemorial.