When I was finishing The Hustle in early 2010, Damian Joseph was looking to move on after teaching elementary school for thirteen years at Zion Prep in South Seattle. It wasn’t a great time to be looking for a teaching job in the public schools, since budget constraints meant there was hardly any outside hiring going on in the Seattle School District and the suburban ones around it.
Damian spent several months looking. Eventually, he told me he had a possibility for a job at West Seattle Elementary, where he was one of the finalists for the position of third-grade teacher.
West Seattle Elementary was a special case. While writing The Hustle, I found that the reporting led me back again and again to various trends in education over the last forty years: mandatory busing; magnet schools; diversity programs; charter schools; “neighborhood” schools; Afro-centric education; and constant testing to measure student progress, to name just several that immediately spring to mind.
West Seattle Elementary falls under a new Obama Administration initiative to improve some of the poorest performing schools in the country – those shown to be in the bottom five percent of test scores in math and English in their states during the last three years. Nationwide, $3.5 billion is to be given to these schools to improve performance. Eighteen were picked in Washington State, including three in Seattle.
As one of them, West Seattle Elementary will receive an extra $1.2 million from the federal government from 2010 through 2013. In order to get this money, the Seattle School District had to hire a new principal and essentially replace most of the staff. Teachers who do not raise their students’ test scores will be reassigned to other schools.
The goal, in the words of the Seattle Times, is to turn West Seattle Elementary into a “high-achieving, high-poverty school.” In other words, it’s the latest attempt to close the achievement gap.
Last year, the school opened up a national hiring process, drawing applications from as far away as the Bronx. Overall, 824 people applied for the job Damian was going for. Fortunately, Damian got it. He’s one of twelve new teachers at the school.
We’ve spoken frequently over the course of the year, and the transition has wholly positive for Damian – he enjoys the challenge, the professionalism of his principal and teaching colleagues, and, of course, the bump in pay and benefits. The pressure to raise test scores, he says, might not bother him as much as some other teachers.
“This is no joke, I knew that going in,” he says. “I’m glad I had the experience at Zion Prep preparing students for the WASL [the Washington Assessment of Student Learning standardized test]. A lot of those students had problems at home and other things going on, so for me this is a normal thing. But it’s tough. The evaluation process is real serious.”
I spent a lot of time sitting in on Damian’s classes when he was at Zion Prep, so I expected he would do well. Still, I was really happy to get this e-mail from him the other day relating some of the test results and his teacher evaluation:
Just a follow up on school issues. I got my end of the year evaluation. I received three “Innovative” and one “Proficient.” That is considered “Innovative” on average, which is the highest evaluation level. I am now eligible to become a mentor teacher to other teachers in the building. Only two or three teachers received this level of evaluation. We took the MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) math test, which is a Seattle School District test. 77 percent of my students tested at grade level and above. I hope we can get similar results on the reading. This is at a level 1 school, the lowest level in the district.
Last year, the majority of students at the school were at least one grade-level behind, so the achievements of Damian’s students are formidable.
At this point, Damian is considering applying to become a “mentor” teacher, which means he would help other teachers in the district who are having problems. Given his own background, Damian is especially effective at working with and understanding kids who come from high-poverty backgrounds. It’s really nice to see his talents getting recognized.
Also, because of his involvement in The Hustle, Damian was chosen to speak at the school’s African-American history assembly in February. His colleague, Laura Bermes, put together a very cool Power Point presentation to go with his talk, which you can see below.