MOUNT VERNON — When Western Washington University students visited Washington Elementary School on a recent October day, the new partnership between the schools had some teachers so excited they put up their hands, preparing to arm wrestle each other over the future teachers, all students with the Woodring College of Education.

It was all friendly competition, as teachers and college students met in the first introduction before a year-long pilot program pairing the students with the school staff.

The program is funded through the university by the Collaborative Schools for Innovation and Success grant, a $500,000 grant administered by the State Professional Educator Standards Board and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington Elementary is applying for funding for the program through the 2015 school year.

Western was one of three colleges statewide to receive the grant, meant to assemble a collaborative effort to help staff strengthen student achievement and better meet the needs of diverse classrooms, often including English language learners.

“There’s expertise that we can partner with on staff at Woodring that will come alongside with the expertise that exists here at our school,” said Bill Nutting, principal at Washington Elementary.

Washington Elementary has 450 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic, with slightly more than 80 percent of the student body qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — one of the highest percentages in the Mount Vernon School District, which already has high free or reduced-price lunch statistics, Nutting told the student interns. There’s a mix of data points, both areas in which students do well and areas in which they could improve, he continued.

The grant is aimed at schools with room for improvement.

“I think part of what made our school attractive in that respect is though we do have some student indicators that we obviously need to focus on and improve, we also have some indicators worthy of celebration,” Nutting said.

The program will host eight interns, who will start in January, during their winter quarter. They’ll work with both teachers and staff on multiple grant-supported initiatives, including classroom support, as well as family engagement efforts and expanded home visits with students’ families.

“We are aware of research that indicates a link between effective family engagement and improving student achievement,” Nutting said. “So investing a portion of our grant effort in family engagement efforts, we believe then over time will impact student achievement.”

The grant will also support an extended-day math program for targeted students, Nutting said, and professional development for staff.

The relationship between Washington Elementary and Woodring College of Education is going to be “mutually beneficial,” said Susan Donnelly, Western Washington University’s co-coordinator of the grant.

The partnership gives the university an opportunity to work with school staff who will be mentoring the interns in considering what skills and dispositions are needed to close an achievement gap, she said.

Closing those gaps, she said, is a goal the university shares with the school.

Eight teachers attended the meeting with the students, representing kindergarten through sixth grade. Kindergarten teacher Denise Behrens said there was a counselor interested in working with the interns, too.

Most of the interns were interested in the intermediate grades, but Behrens told them, if they’d like to help in the kindergarten classroom, “You’ll do great, as long as you’re not afraid to sing and dance and draw.”

Woodring student intern Jose Garcia grew up in the district, and coming back to his roots to teach was attractive to him, he said.

Many of the minority students are part of migrant farms families, Garcia said, “… That’s originally how I came to Washington.”

“I would be able to identify and relate to the problems they have and things with their culture, of course,” he said.

Behrens, a Woodring College of Education graduate herself, is extra enthusiastic about the partnership, she said.

She’s also excited to learn from the students and to teach them the tricks of the trade she’s learned through her years in the classroom.

“My student teaching experience was the greatest experience I had,” she said.

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