With an enrollment of 631 students, the Union Gap School District is by far the smallest in Yakima County. Small enough that it houses preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle school grades in one building.
At the Union Gap School, the daily routine is no different than most other Yakima Valley schools. Take Tanya Gautreaux’s middle school math class. On a recent morning, students dive into the laws of exponents.
The product rule, the quotient rule — the eighth-graders grasped the concepts quickly.
But something is different in Union Gap. While student and family demographics mirror those of other cities in Yakima County — majority Hispanic populations and many low-income families — Union Gap students are performing better, significantly better in some cases, than their counterparts in many other schools.
Union Gap teachers and administrators say their success is a combination of the small district size, minimal teacher turnover, a tight-knit relationship between teachers and administrators and close ties with the surrounding community.
Whatever it is, Union Gap is doing something right.
“We get a lot of calls saying, ‘Why are your test scores so high? Can we come over and see what you’re doing?’ ” said Superintendent Kurt Hilyard. “There is no magic button that makes it so.”
State assessment scores from the school tell the story. For example, almost 85 percent of sixth-grade students met or exceeded standards in reading last spring. In fourth-grade math, 72 percent of students met proficiency. And in eighth-grade writing, about 83 percent of students met or exceeded standards.
Some of their test scores are the highest in the county. State education officials took note last year when Union Gap was presented the Washington Achievement Award in recognition of its significant growth in reading and math proficiency.
A coalition of education groups has given the middle school level two consecutive School of Distinction Awards for becoming one of the fastest-improving schools in the state.
The state Board of Education recently rated Union Gap School as Very Good, the second-highest rating a school can receive under the board’s achievement index, a multiyear evaluation of a school’s proficiency, student growth and college and career readiness. It is also the second-highest rated school in the county under the index, just behind Wide Hollow Elementary in West Valley.
The accolades come as no surprise to Union Gap staff and faculty. Gautreaux, in her ninth year at the school, said the administration places high expectations on its teachers and, as a result, teachers raise the bar for students. Furthermore, the benefit of having several grades under one building means students grow up right before the staff’s eyes and in close quarters, which enables staff to monitor them on a more personal level.
“We’re not only a small school but we’re a small family,” Gautreaux said. “We get to see kids grow from kindergarten to eighth grade. ... I’ve even seen kids now in high school come back and ask for help.”
Teachers meet frequently with the principal and the administration. Weekly meetings make it easier to hear what is or is not working in classrooms.
Monthly data meetings where teachers report student performance (the superintendent participates) contribute to their success — as well as their relationship with the administration. One of the district’s newer hires, sixth-grade math teacher Krystin Linney, said she joined the Union Gap team in part because of the promise that teachers and their supervisors worked closely together. She is a second-year employee of the district.
The fact that the superintendent also is in the classroom — Hilyard teaches an algebra class — was a welcome surprise, Linney said, because it likely meant he could share a teacher’s point of view.
“All those structures he’s talked about are true,” Linney said. “We do have many meetings, we have a strong support system.”
It doesn’t hurt that Union Gap teachers on average are the most experienced compared to other schools in the county, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. For the 2013-14 school year, the average length of experience for Union Gap educators was 13.2 years. Teachers at neighboring Yakima averaged 12.6 years of experience.
“Every year that someone teaches, they build an understanding, they can build and adjust,” said Leslie Hall, a clinical associate professor with Washington State University’s teaching and learning department. “Longevity in a district and just longevity in the field will really add to success.”
Hall knows the Yakima Valley, having taught at Mabton prior to pursuing her master’s and doctoral degrees.
Both Hilyard and Principal Lisa Gredvig said Union Gap generally hires teachers who already have professional experience; it has been a few years since someone right out of college was hired, they said.
The positive reviews of the district have spread, Gredvig said. Teachers outside the district often inquire about open positions. But turnover is fairly minimal and there are only so many positions to fill; last school year, Union Gap employed only 38 teachers.
“People will send me resumes and say to please keep them on file,” Gredvig said. “It’s nice getting that kind of reputation that instruction is paramount to anything else.”
First-grade teacher Nicki Thornton said a colleague of hers was at another school, and she made the difficult decision to leave because the Union Gap vision intrigued her.
“She was really happy where she was,” Thornton said. “She applied here because she was pleased with how progressive we were, adapting Common Core (State Standards), the rigor.”
The school had been under Common Core, the new benchmarks intended to create rigorous and diverse coursework, prior to its statewide implementation this fall.
Because Union Gap’s demographics so closely match those of other Yakima County districts, its success is all the more noteworthy.
OSPI data from last school year shows 75.9 percent of Union Gap’s student population was Hispanic, the same as the Yakima School District. Both school districts also have more than 80 percent of the student population eligible for free or reduced meals. Almost 27 percent of Union Gap’s students are in transitional bilingual programs, just below the nearly one-third of Yakima students similarly labeled.
Yakima Superintendent Elaine Beraza partly attributes the achievement differences to size.
“There are advantages to having small entities and there may be some disadvantages,” Beraza said, without elaborating on the latter.
“They’re a very small school district. They only go to grade 8. ... It’s a very different entity.”
Beraza said meeting with teachers would be easier in Union Gap whereas Yakima had 829 teachers last year. She makes an effort to visit multiple schools per week, and likes to spend entire days in one or two schools.
Curtis Campbell of the Sunnyside School District said Superintendent Rick Cole, currently on personal leave, makes trips to schools twice a week to talk with the teachers and the principals. Much like Yakima, Cole cannot visit all the Sunnyside schools in one work day.
Union Gap’s test scores may also benefit from its low migrant population, often challenging students because of their short-term residency and potential English-language learning barriers. About 9 percent of Union Gap’s students are labeled migrants compared to the 19 percent reported in Yakima. Limited housing in the city is the likeliest reason for the school’s lower number of migrant children, said Hilyard.
Despite the high minority population, Union Gap has succeeded in helping those students achieve. The 2011-12 achievement index results show a reversal in the “achievement gap” between minority and white students so often seen at other schools. That year, Union Gap minority students outperformed the white students by a slim margin.
“Usually it’s the other way around,” Hilyard said.
Noninstructional initiatives, like building a new school and implementing a uniform policy, all in 2009, also contributed to a more cohesive student body, Hilyard added. Uniforms have practically eliminated any gang-afiliated issues; the building is a model of modern school security with single points of entry and dozens of security cameras throughout the campus.
“The new school is so safe and secure that when the parents put off that aura that it’s a safe place for their kids, the kids pick up on it too,” Hilyard said.
Hall of WSU agrees that safety affects student performance because she says many children in today’s world are hypervigilant about their surroundings.
“They hear about infectious diseases and are terrified they will get it. They hear about war across the world so then they begin to worry about war,” she said. “If they are sure the school is safe and there is someone to keep them safe, it helps.”
And Hilyard said the community connection should not be underestimated.
He calls the school “the hub of the community,” where public meetings and school family nights are held in the multipurpose room.
He has more plans to integrate the school into the city with a greenhouse, currently under construction, which could encourage parental involvement through a community garden.
UNION GAP, Wash. — When state test scores were unveiled last month, Union Gap School officials found out the 26 eighth-grade students who took end-of-course (EOC) Algebra I assessments were proficient — a perfect 100 percent.
But when they looked for the information on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) data tables, the 100 percent proficiency mark was nowhere to be found.
“When you come down to the EOC (scores), the green bar is not there,” said Superintendent Kurt Hilyard, referring to missing numbers and bars for the 2013-14 school year in the state’s online database.
As it turns out, OSPI — under the umbrella of the 1974 federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) — set “suppression regulations” to protect student privacy. One such rule states that test scores are suppressed, or hidden, if the total percentage of students meeting standards in a given category is greater than or equal to 95 percent. Because every Union Gap student taking the test met proficiency, the overall data on the test results were kept out of public eye.
As OSPI explains it, if all students perform similarly on an assessment, inferring the performance of any one student would be easy.
“We can’t do it because you had 100 percent of your kids pass,” Hilyard said, relating his conversation with an OSPI official. “We can’t put 100 percent down.”
Both Hilyard and Principal Lisa Gredvig were disappointed over the omission of the eighth-grade scores. As the state and federal government’s primary objectives under the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind Act are to have all students reach proficiency, the two said they can’t comprehend why the public cannot see those numbers if the schools actually reach them.
Hilyard said he even sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressing his disappointment that parents could not see what the eighth graders accomplished if they checked out the OSPI data. He was uncertain if Duncan would ever read the letter.
Despite the chill in the air Tuesday morning, Union Gap eighth-graders armed with shovels planted about 200 shrubs along a recently relocated Yakima Greenway path that runs past the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
These new rose and currant bushes are just a small part of the restoration efforts around the city’s multiphase, multimillion-dollar plan to expand the Yakima River floodplain by moving levees, the treatment plant’s outlet and a section of the Greenway path.
“Rivers naturally move over time, and we want to give (the Yakima River) more space to move,” Ryan Anderson, an engineer for the wastewater plant, told the students. “We’ve lost the natural side channel habitat. We need this floodplain back, for flood control and salmon habitat.”
The flood protection plan calls for pushing back the levee on the eastern side of the river. This will give the river more space to move and shift over time, which is good for flood control. But it means that the river could move away from the pipe that releases the city’s treated wastewater, Anderson said, or clog it with gravel.
The treatment plant plans to relocate the outlet pipe into a side channel, a smaller stretch of water that flows beside the main river. To do that, they first converted a 5-acre pond fed by groundwater and a flat field next to the river into a channel that will connect to the river. Eventually, it will function like natural habitat.
This floodplain restoration cost about $500,000 and the city secured some state and federal funds available for salmon habitat work to help pay for the project.
Although salmon and steelhead runs in the Yakima River system are far below historic levels, in recent years populations have begun to rebound. Thousands to tens of thousands of fish return annually to spawn in the basin. Habitat restoration is a key part of that recovery, according to scientists.
To improve the area for salmon, Anderson explained that this fall, crews removed culverts and reshaped the pond and its drainage into to the Yakima River so fish can get in and out. The work also created more deep holes that salmon like and will allow the water to flow faster, so that it will stay cold and clear, he said.
“Now, we just need trees to make shade,” Anderson said.
Lots of volunteer groups, from local fish enthusiasts to fifth-graders, have participated in planting efforts. Small cottonwoods already line the banks of the newly dug creek.
And shrubs were set out along the upland area next to the new asphalt path, waiting for the 61 Union Gap School students.
After a quick lesson in planting protocol, the students set out in small groups, slamming shovels into the rocky soil and wrestling thorny rose bushes free from their pots.
As they worked, a cyclist sped by on the new path. About 3,500 feet of the path was removed from along the river’s edge and relocated a couple hundred yards to the west, on the other side of the 50 new acres of floodplain and wetland habitat. The city estimated moving the path cost $290,000.
Union Gap social studies teacher Tim Kilgren said he hoped the students were learning both about the potential consequences of when humans alter the natural environment, like building levees to constrain rivers, and about the ongoing importance of protecting salmon.
Lilibeth Ramos, 13, and Maryam Sanchez, 12, were busy planting their third tree, but they agreed that it was fun to see what they had talked about in science class in the real world.
“It’s actually really fun,” Ramos said. “We’re learning how we can help trees and other organisms, too.”
Other students were enthusiastic about missing class and having a chance to help out instead. Brandon Worthington, 13, said he was having a great time as he swung a pickax to loosen up stubborn rocks in the soil.
“You get to help the community and not be in a classroom,” Worthington said.
Although about 5,000 trees have been planted this fall, Anderson said several thousand more remain for next spring to finish the restoration around the newly created side channels.
After this habitat work is completed in the spring, work can move on to the next phase of the project — relocating the pipes that release the treated water into these new channels.
YAKIMA, Wash. — Because her mother came out of the shadows, Anjelica Reyna has been able to shine.
Reyna, a graduating senior at Davis High School, says if her mother hadn’t made the agonizing decision to go back to Mexico, she wouldn’t be heading off to Washington State University this fall.
Reyna, who was born in Yakima 17 years ago, has a family story somewhat reminiscent of what Mitt Romney urged undocumented workers to do during the presidential campaign last year: self-deport.
And that’s basically what Reyna’s mother, Rafaela Gomez, did.
“My mom took a stand, and I’m grateful,” Reyna says.
Reyna’s father was killed in a car accident in Michoácan, Mexico, five months before she was born. Her mother was left with two children, Efren, 3, and Lourdes, 4, and not much hope for their future in their small farming village. But Rafaela had a brother in Yakima, who was here on a work visa, and he urged his sister to come to the United States to better provide for her children.
So when she was seven months pregnant, she sneaked across the border, her two children with her. Reyna was born two months later at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.
In time, Rafaela married Austreberto Gomez, and they had a daughter, Samantha, now 10.
When Reyna was in sixth grade, her mother made the decision to go back to Mexico so they could return some day legally.
She had applied for citizenship but was denied. She could have continued to live here and dodge law enforcement, but she wanted her children to be able to go to college in this country someday.
“I think it was the right decision,” says Daniel Longoria, an economics teacher at Davis, who calls Reyna “a great kid.” Reyna’s mother, he says, “took a big risk with her family, and that allowed them to have opportunity later.”
Reyna agrees. “I’m definitely proud of her decision. I wouldn’t be here without that.”
The entire family moved to Michoácan six years ago. Even though Reyna is fluent in Spanish, it was difficult to maneuver in a strange land. “It was culture shock. The environment was so different,” she says.
After a year and a half, Rafaela Gomez was told she could return to this country as a permanent resident. Reyna, who came back near the end of seventh grade, has excelled in school since. She maintains a 3.5 GPA while being involved in volunteer work at Davis and working every day after school, 16 hours a week, in the latch key program at Union Gap School.
Reyna says her mother didn’t have the opportunity to go to school past the fourth grade in Mexico but always wanted more for her children. So far she’s been very successful: Lourdes graduated from WSU, and Efren from the Art Institute of Seattle.
In the fall, Reyna heads to Pullman to study psychology, with an eye toward becoming a high school counselor.
“What I love about Anjelica’s story,” Longoria says, “is they are the family you want here. They’re the kids you want in class. They’re living the American dream right here in Yakima.”
This is how Reyna sees it: “I’m so blessed to be here and finishing high school and going to college.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Student uniforms can be a divisive issue for any school district. Several here in the Yakima Valley have strict dress codes. KIMA found one district saw dramatic improvement in bullying cases.
These students don't have the freedom to express themselves with what they wear at school. Uniforms have been the rule in Union Gap since the fall of 2009. Parents said the change was good.
"When they're focusing on school, they're focused on school,” said Juliana Moreno. “They're not focused on what I need to buy, what I need to have."
Teachers agreed. Stacey Benedetti has taught at Union Gap School for 13 years.
"It eliminates the distractions that come along with that status," said Stacey.
Parents and teachers KIMA spoke with said the school uniforms create a better learning environment. Kids pay less attention to what they wear and can focus more on academics.
KIMA pulled the numbers to see if there's a noticeable difference in not only student performance, but also behavior.
Union Gap School saw a big drop in bullying suspensions after requiring uniforms. Test scores are a different story. KIMA compared eighth and tenth graders for Union Gap and the only two schools in Yakima with a uniform policy in place for more than a year.
In reading, scores were lower for Washington Middle. Union Gap's were generally higher with one exception. Stanton also increased.
In Math, scores were lower for Washington Middle. Union Gap's first two years were lower than before uniforms, but were higher last year. Stanton scores increased as well.
"I see a huge change when the kids aren't so consumed with what they're wearing or what somebody else is wearing," said Juliana.
A change that has shown kids behave better, but doesn't necessarily translate to better grades. Grandview Middle School will students will have uniforms next school year.