The Remarkable Turnaround of Seattle’s Mercer Middle School

In 2005, just 13.8 percent of Beacon Hill’s Asa Mercer Middle School’s  eighth-graders passed the state science test — 20 points below the district average. While just a third of students passed math and over half passed reading, for years Mercer Middle school had the reputation as one of the district’s worst performing schools, writes Brian M. Rosenthal at the Seattle Times.

With enrollment shrinking, many wrote Mercer off as another casualty of a grim pattern seen in schools nationwide: high diversity, high poverty, low achievement.

But in the past six years they’ve turned this around.

Proponents are keen to point out that while it’s still diverse and poor, Mercer kids now outperform the city average on almost every measure, showing particular among African Americans, English Language Learners and students receiving free lunches.

So how have they done it? Well, it hasn’t been easy. The turnaround needed a strong principal, hardworking teachers and some bold moves, such as scrapping the district’s mandated math textbook in favor of a specialized curriculum built to the same state standards.

“It’s not glamorous,” said the current principal, Susan Toth. “It’s not a silver-bullet story or a piece of magic.”

The Mercer success may significantly influence district policy in 2012, several Seattle Public School Board members said. The district is known to be monitoring studying which parts of the Mercer model can be replicated.

“Other schools need to observe Mercer. We all need to observe it,” said Betty Patu, a board member representing Southeast Seattle.

“They are clearly having success, so how can we implement this at other schools?”

The teachers at Mercer rely on data. Many give a mini-test at the end of every class, using the data to identify struggling students early and place them into a structured intervention plan. Those students get extra instruction tailored to their needs.

Teachers meet weekly to discuss individual students and coordinate lesson plans, which adds up to much more planning time than at most Seattle schools, said Cathy Thompson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

The central administration was largely unaware of Mercer’s approach, School Board member Kay Smith-Blum said.

“They did it sort of undercover,” she said. “They just did what their kids needed.”

And the results are proof the new data-intensive approach is working:

The number of students passing the state math tests more than doubled, to 70.8 percent, during Lutz’s tenure.

While there is still a gap between the scores achieved by white students and students of color, the difference is significantly less than it is districtwide.