2004-05: A school year in perspective

By Mary L. Grady

Along with the Town Center, the Mercer Island School District is in the midst of many changes. As the school term comes to an end, the district is poised for many changes still to come.

Within the 3,900-student public school district of Mercer Island, it was a year for a new mathematics curriculum and a renewed emphasis on the arts, relationships and the community. For students and families, individual expressions as well as teamwork have defined the year.

After working for a year on governance policies to clearly define their role and duties in governing the school district, the Mercer Island School Board formally adopted those measures this spring, but continues to fine tune their implementation. It is the board's role to articulate goals and objectives of the type of school district the Island community wants to accomplish. These are called ``ends.'' It is the duty of the superintendent and school administrators to find right the way to meet those ends.

The Mercer Island School District, Mercer Island High School, and the Lakeridge and Island Park elementary schools were recipients of the Washington State Education Improvement awards for 2003-04. This award from the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, recognized individual schools and districts for reducing the number of students by 10 percent who did not meet standards in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Scores for West Mercer Elementary students, while continuing to improve, just missed the award threshold.

State mandated curriculums in anti-harassment techniques and bullying were given throughout the district.

``We are feeling payback; kids understand what harassment looks like,'' said Islander Middle School principal, Sharon Gillaspie.

Lakeridge Elementary School began the Autism Spectrum program at the school. West Mercer started a program called BEACONS with the UW, to improve and reinforce good behavior and manners.

Diversity of both culture and opinion continues to be taught. A Holocaust survivor spoke to Islander Middle School students, as did two young men who came as children from Africa to make their way in the United States. Young people came to the high school to talk with students about sexually-transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Middle School students follow and debate political matters. Speakers came to share their views, experiences and careers with students at the a day of respect and a career day at the high school.

As always on Mercer Island, people gave generously of both their time and money. West Mercer Elementary school got a new courtyard garden, an $80,000 gift from the community and hours of volunteer work from the Rotary Club. A group of West Mercer Elementary School parents gave money for new playground equipment at the school. Funds raised by the Mercer Island School Foundation continue to grow each year. More than $400,000 was raised during last fall's Phone-a-thon for the foundation. The foundation raised $140,000 more at a fundraising breakfast with business leaders in the spring. Money raised through the nonprofit foundation is used for projects and education initiatives throughout the school district. At each school, parents and families spend countless hours helping teachers, tutor students, manage events and raise even more money.

The students themselves rose to the occasion raising money for tsunami victims in Asia; most embracing the new Bridges program at the high school, and pushing for more student government.

The number of volunteer hours put in by students continues to climb with young people pitching in on everything from the environment to tutoring children to helping the homeless. The Safe-rides program, begun in 2003 by a group of students and parents, that offers a safe ride home for teens on weekends, continues.

Private tutoring on the Island continues to grow and change in importance to the school district. Students struggling with math or trying to stay competitive can now take classes for actual credit at firms that have become state-accredited schools. The district has vowed to work more closely with the private schools for the good of students and to insure the value of a grade on a Mercer Island High School transcript.

In sports, titles were won and individuals overcame adversity to perform and support their teams. Other teams that don't get as much press continued to grow in number and win competitions. Debate, DECA (the marketing and business class at the high school), Science and Math Olympiad teams, and chess players from Island schools placed or won at local, regional and national tournaments.

There were Low points. A Mercer Island High School senior and a former student died by suicide. Drug and alcohol use by students remains an issue. But the community continues to take these issues head on. The PTSA and the district brought in speakers to help parents and students deal with the suicide. A nationally-known expert on aggression in girls came to speak about the often-unseen but harmful behaviors by girls toward each other.

And other incidents were painful. The track and field at Bellevue High School was vandalized by Island students. A teacher was dismissed for inappropriate behavior with students and at least one other investigated. The radio station KMIH may lose its broadcasting license to a larger commercial station from Oregon. A former Island Park Elementary student died in a house fire at his new home in Florida.

District administrators brought in able interim principals at the high school and now, after a prolonged search, have recently hired a principal and associate principal to fill those vacancies. Despite setbacks and much frustration, parents and teachers and school administrators continue to lobby and monitor the actions of the Legislature and the future of school funding.

The Boys & Girls Club along with a group of high school athletic boosters, proffered a proposal for a teen center and athletic complex on school district property. Daycares and preschools which had been previously scrambling for space with the demise of the community Center were again fighting for a place at the education table.

Through the arts, many difficult topics have been tackled. The drama department at the high school took on controversial topics through their productions of the Laramie Project and Fuddy Mears, plays that centered around intolerance and domestic violence.

Students with the mentorship of teachers and parents, continue to push beyond the confines of the school building. Rose Gifford's Advanced Placement art students displayed their works this term at the Seattle Arts Museum. Alan Vizzutti gave high school musicians the thrill of working with a Grammy-winning recording artist. Spelling bees have make a comeback most notably at Islander Middle School.

The Mercer Island High School marching band was selected to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade in January 2006. The band members, their parents and supporters have spent much of the time since raising the $250,000 necessary to send the band to Pasadena, Calif.

And a black and white photograph taken by Alec Williams, a student at West Mercer Elementary school of a man sweeping a sidewalk on a fall morning, was a recipient of an ``Outstanding Interpretation Award.'' His award and those of many students in the Washington PTSA Reflections Contest shows us what is yet to come.

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