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George and Fry retire from School Board - Long-time members look back on accomplishments, ahead to new endeavors

By Katherine Sather

When School Board members Carrie George and John Fry ran for election four years ago, they hoped to build a more challenging environment for every student.

They wanted more opportunities for gifted children, expanded advanced courses at the high school and heightened challenges for students of all levels. They leave the board this month with some regret that more of this couldn't be accomplished. At one of their final meetings Nov. 3, the board approved a plan to study honors, Advanced Placement (AP) classes and an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the high school. They want the study to recommend more advanced courses for the high school.

``We have a long ways to go to have an academic program that emulates the very best schools in the country,'' Fry said.

Fry, who has a son in the ninth grade and daughter in the first grade in Mercer Island schools, works as a investment portfolio manager for Citigroup. He said he decided to leave the Mercer Island board to give someone else a chance at community service. George, who is also working, has two daughters in the district. She decided not to run for office again to spend more time with them.

When elected in 2001 along with Ken Glass, their first challenge was working on a divided board of new and old members that often couldn't come to a consensus,said Superintendent Cyndy Simms. The 2003 election brought new members Lisa Strauch Eggers, Leslie Ferrell and Pat Braman to the board.

``The change provided them the opportunity to put the past behind them,'' Simms said of the board.

The School Board participated in a three-day conflict resolution workshop in the spring of 2004 with some 75 community members. The workshop was to address past strife, including a continual rift among people who don't think the district does enough for students academically, and those who want the district to help students feel more connected. Board members then set about selecting a new governance model, which George said was a major accomplishment.

``It allows us to better focus on the goals we want to accomplish for kids, and provides a good mechanism for us to have discussions about that with the community,'' she said.

She and Fry are proud of the new leadership team the board put in place, including Simms, new high school principal John Harrison and Gary Plano, director of instructional services.

``They are instructional and curriculum experts and have a clear position that every student can learn,'' George said.

They are pleased that more AP courses were added at the high school during their terms and the district adopted a new accelerated math program that allows students to enroll in classes that match their skill levels. Last year, a district wide program for gifted students in elementary schools was started and Islander Middle School is studying adopting its own gifted program.

George is proud that the district has put much effort into helping students meet state and federal standards, and that it has provided teacher training focusing on understanding different learning styles. But Fry thinks the district still has a one-size-fits-all mentality at the elementary and middle schools. He wishes the district would adopt more of a service mentality toward the community.

They both agree that more needs to be done about challenging students, especially in the high school.

``Our kids come to school already at or near the levels they need,'' Fry said. ``Our challenge as a district I believe, is to take them further.''

Currently, students in the 11th and 12th grades can take AP and honors courses and one honors course is available to 10th graders. This winter, the district will participate in a study of advanced courses in the high school that was approved along with the Bridges advisory program. George regrets it wasn't started sooner.

She and Fry agree that the ``jury is still out'' on the impact of Bridges, which was designed to engage students at the high school and build connections among peers and adults.

``Unfortunately, there's no way to measure that in a valid and honest way,'' Fry said.

He said the resources that went into the program would have been more productive in academics and he regrets that he couldn't make more of an impact on that in his term.

``The School Board chemistry and makeup and ability to impact and change education is much more limited than I had envisioned,'' he said.

He thinks the district continually falls short of its potential because it sets low benchmark comparisons with other schools.

``We look at communities around us or in the state and compare ourselves very favorably and don't see the opportunity for significant progress,'' he said. ``In the future, I'd encourage the board to think in terms of who are the best in the nation and world.''

Simms said Fry has been a constant reminder to the district to think about how it's serving students academically. He constantly asks for research, proof and best practices. She said that George has brought to the board an uncanny ability to listen to all points of view and knit them together to produce an idea that all five board members agree with.

George leaves the board with a sense that it made progress.

``I feel like we've changed the direction of the district to be more lead by instructional and curriculum best practices,'' she said. ``We're moving in the right direction.''

While Simms knows the two board members have been frustrated about the amount of advanced courses offered in the high school, several circumstances have delayed the effort, including staff turnover and a new board. Now the district can explore the issue.

``What they've done is reminded us as a district that we haven't really addressed the issue in a comprehensive way,'' she said. ``We needed other groundwork laid so we could embark on that piece.''

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