Families of Hilton Elementary School students spent eight days getting to know their kids’ teachers before serious academic work began through distance learning this Fall.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced that unique approach, but the focus on creating relationships maintained the status quo at Zillah’s school for kindergarten through third grade. Those efforts and others to reach all students keep producing exceptional results that haven’t gone unnoticed, most recently as an Elementary and Secondary Education Act State Distinguished School for Closing the Achievement Gap for Two or More Consecutive Years.

“If we get to know people and know what their needs and wants are we can really hone in on working with the family or working with the student,” principal Ryne Phillips said. “So that’s where we really start, with relationships, and then the academic stuff starts to filter in after that.”

In 2019, Hilton was the only elementary school in Washington to be named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, once again for its efforts closing the education gap. This year’s award from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction earned Hilton $10,000 to spend on professional development and an invitation to a national conference scheduled to be held virtually in February.

In recent years, students at Hilton performed better than their peers throughout Washington and the Yakima Valley on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a summative math and English/Language Arts test taken by all third graders at the end of the school year. Teachers and staff worked together with families to overcome challenges such as 60% of the student body qualifying for free or reduced lunches and about 100 out of 340 students from mostly Spanish-speaking homes requiring an English Learners program, according to Phillips.

Focused Intervention

An experienced group of teachers at Hilton always understood the importance of welcoming new families into a strong, supportive community.

When Phillips took over in the 2016-17 school year to fill a brief void in leadership, he quickly put even more emphasis on addressing the students most at risk of falling behind. The school relies on Guided Language Acquisition Design strategies for its Spanish-speaking students and former teacher Yessica Esquivel took on a full-time role helping teachers and students as a Tier 3 certified GLAD trainer, allowing her to train teachers throughout the district.

“I just think it’s really a team effort and every grade level is working together,” said Esquivel, a Zillah native and fluent Spanish speaker who went through a similar language program herself at the elementary school. “Then they work with a specialist and that’s what’s key here.”

Her role changed this fall due to COVID-19 restrictions, thanks to strict limits on groups and physical contact with objects. But Esquivel’s goals of teaching language in coordination with classroom objectives persist whether she’s sending home activities or pulling kids out of class for 1-on-1 sessions.

Kindergarten teacher Pam Belton said she incorporates many of those same GLAD strategies into her own lessons, since hands-on learning or methods such as chanting and rhyming work for all students. Third grade teacher Amy Zeutenhorst has developed a working knowledge of academic Spanish that allows her to connect with kids but she still relies heavily on support from Esquivel.

“Yessica’s amazing,” Zeutenhorst said. “She is so knowledgeable and these kids just grow so much, especially at 1, 2 and 3 they are just flying with her support.”

Language challenges vary among Spanish-speaking students, with some classified as “emerging learners” who can barely speak English at all. Esquivel said the vast majority pick it up quickly enough to exit the English Learners program after second grade, just as she did at Hilton.

Another intervention specialist, Katie Irion, also provides additional support for students who need extra help outside the classroom. Phillips estimated between 30 and 40 students across all grade levels fall into that Tier 1 category each year, denoting the most urgent academic needs.

During a normal school year, Hilton hires about 10 paraprofessionals to offer even more assistance at a school with a relatively small 18-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. They’re capable of providing a wide variety of services, including working one-on-one with students and supervising recess, and Zeutenhorst said she’s sorely missed the paraprofessionals not brought back when students returned for half-day in-person learning on Oct. 26.

Contact with parents or other guardians became even more crucial during distance learning, and Phillips said he expects to make Zoom conferences a permanent option going forward. Second grade teachers Gail Gregory and Caren Moritz said they value those connections and noted the importance of weekly Friday newsletters.

“We send home a snapshot of what skills are going to be covered, any practice materials,” Gregory said, noting that like most things teachers send home, the newsletters are in English and Spanish. “Just what’s happening in the classroom so parents feel involved and know how to support their child at home.”

Avoiding complacency

Everyone from Hilton’s teachers all the way up to Superintendent Doug Burge, Hilton’s principal until 2016, stresses the need to keep evolving to better serve their students.

Freedom to be flexible gives Phillips different ways to adjust curricula and keep teachers motivated, something that became especially important when they worked from home. Belton also praised her principal for giving teachers all the resources they need, and Moritz said she feels comfortable trying out creative solutions to challenges in the classroom.

“If it’s something we’ve planned, but we see it’s not best for kids today, then we know we don’t have to all be on the same page or follow those lesson plans that we turn in,” said Moritz, Zeutenhorst’s mother and a teacher at Hilton for the last 28 years. “We’ve gone through some new things, new curriculums, intervention and it’s hard when you’ve taught as long as we have when you’re hit with a lot of new, but we get a lot of support and we usually find that we’re falling in love with the new and we keep it.”

A big change came following the first SBAs in spring 2015, when fewer than 40% of students passed the English/Language Arts section of the test. Belton, then a third grade teacher, said a new reading curriculum featuring much more nonfiction gave students the tools they needed, and 61% of the next class of third graders achieved a passing score.

That number rose to 74% by 2018 and every year, Phillips meets with his teachers to discuss the results. They also talk with each other to learn more about the most effective teaching methods or the best way to teach individual students.

Zeutenhorst and Moritz have both joined other teachers within the local Education Service District as math fellows, an example of how they take advantage of opportunities to learn from their peers. Of course, other districts want to learn more about Hilton’s formula for success, so Phillips said administrators and teachers also go to other schools to share their insights.

Although Gregory is in her 30th year at Hilton, she’s always eager to join colleagues in finding ways to learn more and improve the ways they communicate with children. Burge sets expectations high and understands the district should always keep adapting.

“Even if you’re at a pretty high level at any time, we don’t want to be satisfied with that,” Burge said. “We want to continue to provide for students.”

Reach Luke Thompson at luthompson@yakimaherald.com and on Twitter: @luketscribe