Breaking bread, boosting scores

When Valerie Gilstrap sat with a few Orchard Heights students Friday, it didn’t look like a grade-boosting session. It looked more like a picnic.

“Are you going to eat your sandwich?” she asked as one student sitting on her blue blanket reached into his lunch sack and pulled out two snack-size candy bars.

Reluctantly, after two more gentle prods, the third-grader pulled out his tuna sandwich and took a bite. Gilstrap then turned to the girl on her right.

“How was your summer?” she asked the tiny first grader in the pink jacket who was joining the monthly lunches for the first time.

Over about two hours, Gilstrap met with more than a dozen students, catching up with each about their summers, finding out how their classes were going, sharing laughs and ending each session with a Native American story.

And though there’s never any talk of how to solve a math problem or write a sentence, Gilstrap said these lunches are the first crucial step in the South Kitsap School District’s Indian Education Program that helped its students meet — and exceed — academic expectations.

Evidenced by last year’s WASL scores, South Kitsap’s Native American students are achieving solid successes; and, in many cases — especially with the 10th graders — surpassing their counterparts statewide.

In 2003 — the first year the WASL scores were separated into minority groups in accordance with the Federal Leave No Child Behind act — more of South Kitsap’s Native American sophomores met the standards than their fellow Washington students in all categories except listening.

In the other three — math, reading and writing — SK students beat the state scores by at least 10 percentage points, and a full 33 percentage points higher in writing.

“I am very, very proud and pleased of our district and our students — particularly our Native American students,” said Director of Special Programs Linda Munson. “They are out in front of the curve.”

When asked why this population of students commonly at risk for poor attendance and achievement seems to be thriving at South Kitsap, the answers vary, and credit many things from Gilstrap’s involvement to a federally-funded tutoring program.

But all agree that it’s the district’s balanced approach — combining academic help with cultural and personal nurturing — that achieves the impressive gains.

To help students with their schoolwork, the district offers each of its eligible students one-on-one tutoring — usually with a district paraeducator— in whatever areas they are struggling with. To be eligible, Munson said, a student needs to be registered with a tribe, which includes about 250 of the district’s approximately 400 Native American students.

Federal funds pay for the tutoring and Gilstrap’s salary, Munson said. This year, the district received a little more than $50,000, an increase of several thousand dollars from last year.

“We have some really great tutors,” Gilstrap said, explaining that last year the district’s tutoring money only stretched until the WASL tests were scheduled, but the tutors decided on their own to continue sessions until the end of the year.

“They wanted to work with the kids through the end of school,” she said. “They are really committed to the kids; they are doing it because they really care.”

Parent Georgianna Akers, who attended a recent meeting of the South Kitsap Indian Parent Advisory Council, said the tutoring has made an enormous difference with her son, Sam.

“Sam’s tutor could get him to do things that I could never get him to do,” she said. “If I’d tell him to do something, he wouldn’t, but if it comes out of the tutor’s mouth, it’s sacred and necessary."

Akers said the positive aspects of the program benefited more than the students’ schoolwork.

“It’s two-fold — both academic and caring,” she said. “The adult relationship is also good, because the students know there’s people that care.”

To enrich other aspects of the students’ lives, Gilstrap offers after-school programs at the junior highs, teaching the children native crafts such as beadwork, or how to make drums and baskets.

“You’re not just teaching the kids to make a basket,” said William Gilstrap, Valerie’s husband and the current president of the Indian Parent Council. “It takes math to make a basket, and all along you’re talking about the social and cultural history of all the tribes.”

To improve attendance and give the students “a goal that was not just academic,” Gilstrap said she created a Warrior Society three years ago. Only students who meet the grade and attendance requirements can join, she said.

“I wanted to get them to attend more, but I also wanted to give them something to aspire to and a way to be proud of who they are,” Gilstrap said.

The first year, she said, 50 out of 225 students didn’t make the requirements. The following year, she said, all but four qualified.

Gilstrap said there has also been significant improvements since her position went full-time three years ago, which has allowed her much more time with the kids.

“It used to be 20 hours a week, and I’d meet with the kids maybe twice a year,” she said. “Now, I meet with them once a month, and the kids get to know me and trust me. I know the kids by sight. I know their names, and I know their brothers and sisters. They’re not just a list of names.”

Parent Chris Holt, whose son Phillip is in the fourth grade, said she has seen a dramatic change since Gilstrap began meeting with the students every month.

“There’s been a huge difference since Val went full-time,” Holt said. “The scores started going up, and (Phillip) really notices when she’s not there. He asks me, ‘Where’s Val?’”

William Gilstrap said the consistency of his wife’s visits and her follow-through are key.

“The students crave consistency, and when that happens, and continues to happen, they just eat that alive,” he said.

Gilstrap said the increased visits improve her relationships with not only the students, but their teachers and other staff members as well.

“I have more visibility with the buildings as well,” she said, which allows her to more effectively identify and find the resources each student needs.

“They’re more comfortable with me now, and they’ve started opening up to me,” she said, allowing the kids to tell her things about their lives that they might not share with their teachers or other adults.

Gilstrap said the monthly meetings may appear to be just kids eating lunch and listening to one of her carefully selected Native American myths, but she said they are just the beginning a very beneficial connection.

“By the time kids reach junior high or their teens, they have reached a stage where they might think it’s ‘not cool’ to go to these things, or will seem interested, but not show up,” she said. “But if I’ve been visiting them since elementary school, they see the value in what we have to offer and they are more likely to come as they get older.”

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