When Tenino Middle School Principal John Neal took over in 2016 — the school was performing below the state average and was designated by OSPI as a “focus school.” Neal said he was determined to improve the school.
Neal and Tenino Middle School Assistant Principal Teresa Jackson wanted to provide students with a more impactful learning experience and improve the school overall so they presented the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program to the school board as the engine for instructional improvement, Neal said.
“My goal was to transform instruction, systems, and expectations at TMS to reflect our goal of becoming one of the best schools in the state,” Neal said.
In 2017, the school board voted to invest in the AVID program and teachers began learning new teaching techniques and ways to keeps students engaged and excited about learning. Neal said that AVID is an international framework, originally designed to help at-risk students get to college but it shifted to being a framework around schoolwide instruction.
“We were really excited when the school board was able to sponsor this because it’s not cheap, but it’s really rewarding to see the investment pay off. It’s something that the district recognizes is important,” Neal said.
There are 362 sites in Washington state that are AVID schools and Tenino Middle School was one of 12 to receive the honor of being named a “Site of Distinction” this year.
“It’s a pretty big deal. We’ve been an AVID school for three years and we first had to work to become certified and then to be labeled as a site of distinction in only three years — it’s a pretty cool thing for us and it’s something that we used to really turn our school around,” Neal said.
Neal said that some of the top qualities the AVID program provides the schools are college and career readiness, academic language for teachers, and overall organizational skills. The AVID program provides common instructional strategies built around WICOR (Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading) which have been implemented schoolwide.
“We saw the need here for something that would really push our teachers to be the best that they can be and luckily with our results here it migrated to the high school and we would be starting at the elementary school this year if it weren’t for COVID,” Neal said.
Neal said that they are now losing fewer students to neighboring districts and have been focusing on shifting the negative perceptions around Tenino schools. He said that the school now has higher expectations for students and makes sure teachers are providing the needed support.
“We’re proud of that because it wasn’t always that way,” he said.
The staff attends a four-day AVID training during the summer to learn how to implement effective teaching strategies in the classroom. A representative from AVID does a walk-through of the school twice a year to assess how well the program is working and a group of Tenino Middle School teachers conduct a walkthrough of all of the classrooms once a month to make sure everyone is on track.
“We’ve received so much positive feedback from the AVID team and to couple that with the improved results of our standardized testing — it’s just a different school and that’s what we set out to do. It’s remarkable how fast we were able to do it,” Neal said.
Jackson said that she has seen a shift in the way students view the possibilities after graduation since implementing the AVID program. She said the middle schoolers have had the chance to visit colleges in the region including the University of Washington and the University of Oregon.
“A lot of them haven’t ever left Tenino. We took them to Olympia and a lot of them had never seen the Capitol building. They’re having a lot of “ah-ha” moments,” Jackson said. “Students really have a sense of accomplishment and pride.”
Looking toward the future, Neal said the school will continue working to implement district-wide language about what effective instruction looks like and work toward being recognized as a “Site of Distinction” on a national level. For now, Jackson and Neal said they are waiting to receive the “AVID School of Distinction” banner — to display their accomplishment to students, staff and the community.
“In small towns, there’s a large sense of pride around schools because this is who we are and it’s something that, traditionally a lot of that focus is around sports and athletics. This gives us something to really latch onto around the academic piece of school and be proud of,” Neal said.