Seattle mayor leads delegation to tour Boston schools

Interested in improving early education in his home city, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and a delegation of other top city officials toured Boston schools last week.

Murray and his group observed preschool and kindergarten classrooms at the Eliot School in the North End and the Ellis Memorial School, an independent preschool program in the South End.

“We’re looking at the idea of pre-kindergarten and how you’ve implemented it because we have some real challenges as far as equity in our city and in our school district in particular,” Murray said during the tour. “We’re very interested to see the quality and the financing model that Boston has developed.”

Murray said Boston’s national reputation for a well-developed curriculum made the city the perfect candidate to kick off the tour, which included Jersey City, N.J., and Washington, D.C.

“The kids are really engaged and I’m surprised how long they’re staying with their tasks,” Murray said of students in the classroom of Eliot lead K2 teacher Katie Catalano.

As officials from Seattle observed her class, Catalano guided her students through numerous stations. She presided over a small group as others spread out across the room, either working independently or with a teacher’s aid.

“Everything we do is center based,” Catalano said. “The center’s change once a week – every week Monday through Friday we have the same centers and next week we’ll have a new round of centers.”

As Catalano spoke, students engaged in literacy exercises spread throughout the room.

“Kids are talking and learning and engaged,” Murray observed.
Brian Ballou, spokesman for Boston Public Schools, said the school district’s early education director Jason Sachs puts an emphasis on academic achievement at an early age.

“Test results have shown that when you start education at K1 and K2 that it results in better MCAS scores from third grade on,” Ballou said.

Meanwhile, in a K1 classroom, grad student Kaeli McCarthy led students through activities in a bridge, motion, and movement unit.

“We have kids building bridges with blocks, we have children making cars and painting them – everything we do relates to each other,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said other groups frequently tour their school in order to replicate Boston’s early education model.

Over at the Ellis Memorial School, the delegation found similar center-based learning with five staff members in each of three classrooms being observed.

Laura Figueroa, a lead K1 teacher at Ellis, said the students were learning about color. That day was entirely “ice cream” themed.

“They’re playing with Play-Doh pretending it’s ice cream; in a dramatic play there’s an ice cream store, so they’re buying ice cream with money; at the art table we’re making ice cream cones,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa said the program at Ellis is designed to help prepare students to get to public school so they are ready to learn.

Lucy Gaskill-Gaddis of the Levy Oversight Committee in Seattle said she was impressed at the cooperation between private entities like Ellis Memorial and the public school system.

“It’s phenomenal and this is the way it should be,” Gaskill-Gaddis said. “That’s the approach we’re going to have because Seattle Public Schools doesn’t have the capacity to do it.”

Murray said he believed the city could replicate the quality of the education, but said the challenge would be finding money.

“It’s the West; things are more diffused – the School Department is a completely different governmental entity from the city,” he said. “It is more difficult to finance things in many Western states compared to the Northeast.”