Wood Middle School reinvents itself

Wood Middle School reinvents itself

Michele Ellson
Will C. Wood Middle School

Jane Grimaldi is finishing her sixth year as a parent at Will C. Wood Middle School. When she started, “it was kind of a given that everybody went to Wood,” Grimaldi said.

In the years that followed, that reputation slipped away. The school’s enrollment dropped and its test scores faltered; as enrollment dipped, Wood lost newer and more innovative teachers. Its leadership turned over on an almost annual basis, and families feared the school was on the brink of closure.

But now, the school’s boosters are working to effect a turnaround. And Grimaldi – who said she’s had a “great experience” at the school and with its teachers – will return as its Parent Teacher Association president when her third child starts there in the fall.

“I’m excited about the changes that are coming up,” she said.

Wood is transforming itself from a traditional neighborhood-serving middle school into a science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM, school. And school leaders hope the changes – which are coming out of the ashes of test score failures and the havoc they helped wreak – will help the school once again draw some of the higher achieving students it once served while doing more to engage students who are struggling.

“One of the things that makes Alameda so beautiful is its diversity. We want Wood to be representative of that,” said Wood principal Cammie Harris, who is leading the transition with reform coordinator Katherine Crawford. “We want the school to be so that any child, regardless of economic status or ethnicity, can succeed here.”

The school board is slated to consider approval of the plan at its April 29 meeting, a draft agenda for the meeting shows. Funding for the school’s new program will be discussed by the board on May 27, though Superintendent Kirsten Vital said Alameda Unified is “fully committed to allocating the resources needed to support Wood’s new program.”

The school’s restructuring plan seeks to leverage Wood’s strengths – which include the arts and some unique science and technology programs – to capture the attention of students who are struggling in school and the interest of neighborhood families who are now choosing to go elsewhere. The plan seeks to change students’ physical environment too, adding a maker space, engineering and multimedia labs to support what will be a more hands-on curriculum than schools traditionally offer.

“In looking at restructuring, we tried to leverage what was really good here,” Crawford said.

In 2001, Wood was honored as a California Distinguished School. Less than a year later, then-President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind act into law, ushering in a new era of test-based learning and with it, the seeds for what would be some difficult years for the middle school.

The school’s academies – small learning communities in which some of Wood’s students were team-taught by the same teachers throughout their years there – were disbanded in 2004, replaced by regular core classes a year later, a restructuring plan presented to the school board in February says. Wood became a Title 1 school in 2006, receiving federal aid for disadvantaged students because a high percentage of its students were poor or learning English as a second language – and with it, increased scrutiny of its students’ standardized test results.

In 2009 another of Alameda’s middle schools – Chipman – went through its own No Child Left Behind-induced transformation, shutting down and reopening as a charter school. That change led to a “significant change” in Wood’s demographics, the restructuring report says; two-thirds of its students are from low-income families, while nearly a third are learning English as a second language.

A year later, Wood went into Program Improvement – meaning that its students’ test scores and their proficiency in math and English failed to meet mandated levels. The school’s overall test score average has risen and fallen since 2007, but the school – like many – failed to help children from low-income families and particularly, English learners, reach test score targets over the past several years.

The designation sent 150 of the school’s students – many of them higher performers – to other schools, the report says. The declining enrollment forced the school to cancel electives, and it lost some of its newer and more innovative teachers, it says. Wood has been led by seven different administrative teams since 2005.

“The threat of impending closure, the public perception of being a “bad” school because of (program improvement) status, and the lack of consistent leadership led to a lack of cohesion in instruction and a breakdown of collegiality,” the report says.

In 2011, Wood boosters proposed a plan to transform the school into a STEAM magnet as part of a new school district process permitting school communities to provide unique programs that was borne out of the school district’s 2009 master plan. But district staff recommended the proposal be rejected by the school board.

Vital said that at that time, the school’s administrators and teachers “were not yet 100 percent on the same page” for what the school should look like, something she said has since changed.

Schools leaders’ decision to move the Alameda Community Learning Center charter onto the Wood campus this year – a move that led the district to shuffle dozens of off-Island transfer and special education students to the new Junior Jets campus – stirred fears that the district was planning to close the struggling middle school (At the time, Vital denied that this was the case, and the charter school is expected to move off the Wood campus at the end of the year).

Over the past two years, though, the school has defied expectations of a continued downward spiral, handily beating enrollment projections and boasting double-digit test score gains for two years in a row. The well-regarded Harris, who came to Alameda Unified four years ago as principal of Donald D. Lum Elementary School, was assigned to lead Wood this year part-time and will be its full-time principal in the fall.

The school also has smaller class sizes than its East End analogue, Lincoln Middle School, and counselors who are on hand to tend to students’ emotional needs.

“The climate is completely different than it was three years ago. It’s calm,” Crawford said. “Kids just know – they’ve internalized the rules for the school.”

Harris said Wood has hit its enrollment target for next year’s sixth grade class, and while new demographic projections show little growth there over the next decade, Vital said she thinks the new program will boost enrollment.

While the school has made strides, Vital said its students’ test scores aren’t where they need to be. Wood’s academic performance index score has long come up short of 800, which is the state standard for success, and only about half of the students there demonstrated proficiency in math and English Language Arts last year.

“It seems clear that the school could benefit from a change in its program,” she said in response to e-mailed questions from a reporter.

In addition to progress on academics, Vital said measures of the new program’s success will include engaged students and satisfied families, higher enrollment, better attendance and fewer suspensions.

No Child Left Behind focused “on kids’ deficits rather that their strengths,” said Crawford, who has worked for Alameda Unified for two decades and was brought in as Wood’s reform coordinator last year. “Kids who don’t read well or struggle in math, they just get more of what they don’t like.”

But the new Common Core standards being ushered in this year have presented opportunities to focus more intently on smaller pieces of curriculum, Harris said, and to weave basic concepts into students’ learning in a more integrated manner across subjects.

Wood’s new program aims to weave that learning into classes its students will be more passionate about, while providing supports that will help struggling students succeed. Under the restructuring plan, the school’s teachers would participate in a Professional Learning Community through which they would collaborate to develop common assessments of students’ proficiency and to track their learning, attendance and any behavioral issues.

The proposed plan includes Wood’s unique Service Learning Waste Reduction Project, which links learning with a school’s waste reduction goals; its two-year-old Teen Techs after-school program; and the Wood Museum, which features student-made artifacts, and extends those efforts with new classes to be developed and field trips and other real-world opportunities that demonstrate how the skills students are learning may one day be used on the job. The school’s schedule is being finalized.

It also seeks to do more to engage parents – who often scale back their involvement when elementary school ends – and to leverage community members who may have skills to teach. In addition to the labs, plans are to create a parent room that will provide Internet access, instruction and tools for understanding new Common Core lessons.

“Parents feel that students in middle school don’t need them. But they really do,” Harris said.

The STEAM program is designed to give students who have been struggling a chance to succeed while also offering a “robust, rigorous” curriculum that will challenge high achievers – an effort that the school, like the charters that have preceded it, is beginning to market to parents in an effort to draw new families.

“The ceiling will not stop at the teacher. The learning will extend beyond that,” Harris said. “The world is their classroom.”

While postcards to prospective middle school parents have built awareness about the changes planned for Wood, Grimaldi and parents like her may be the school’s strongest marketing tool. Grimaldi, who has been a vocal advocate of Wood over the past few years, said she thinks the hands-on curriculum will attract parents and grab students’ attention.

“(It’s nice) to feel the community excited about their neighborhood school again,” she said.


Submitted by William Collins (not verified) on Thu, Apr 17, 2014

Great article, I'm so happy to be part of the Wood Middle School family, and am pleased that Jane Grimaldi will be there next year! Thanks for sharing this with the Alameda Schools community!

Go Beavers!

Submitted by Lori Keep (not verified) on Thu, Apr 17, 2014

Very nice article about our school! I have also been at Wood for several years, supporting the school and its teachers through so many ups and downs. I am thrilled to see the new life being given to Wood Middle School! Bring it on! Go Beavers!

Submitted by A very sad WMS ... (not verified) on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

That's unbelievable! Nothing has changed! How can this article be posted today, which is the same day that the faculty in charge & co-founder of both of these wonderful programs Teen Techs & Wood Museum was displaced on the very same day! Forget about actually improving academics, its the appearance of improving things.

Submitted by This article ne... (not verified) on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

8 hours after this article was posted, the co-founder and faculty for Teen Techs as well as the Wood Museum has been displaced at Wood Middle School due to this restructure and that her services will no longer be needed! Ms. Ely has been with WMS since 2002! She goes way beyond the call of duty! She has brought a community of resources to WMS and created collaboration between Purdue Engineering, Lum, Asti,and local businesses and the Tech professionals. She recently won the an AEF classroom award for her robotics program and also won the prestigious EBUE grant and the Altamont Grant for her innovations to WMS! She has recruited parents to all these wonderful programs! She is truly a teacher in my dictionary! With several graduate degrees under her belt including from U.C. Berkeley! We are the T in STEAM! She has brought real world professionals into the classroom and she made every project at WMS a joyful and successful one!
How can you take someone's else work and promote it as your own! Shame on you!
It breaks my heart that we lost another great teacher at WMS.



Submitted by Michele Ellson on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

Hello to the folks who posted the two comments on Nancy Ely: Can you get in touch and give me a little more info? I'm at michele@thealamedan.org. Thanks.

Submitted by Blanche Kim (not verified) on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

I enjoyed the article. Thank you for writing it, Michelle. It's nice to read something positive about Wood, where our 5th grader will be next year. We're excited about the restructuring plan. More importantly, my child is excited about it and has already chosen electives from the great list of choices. I'm sorry to hear from the comments about Ms Ely. (BTW, I've been assured that the programs mentioned will continue, as well as some new ones introduced. In fact, there are plans for a "maker's space" where engineering classes will be held during and after school.) I don't know the details of the situation, but I DO know that Ms Harris truly has the students' best interests in mind. We've seen her good works at Lum. I believe and trust in her and the restructuring team to make the best decisions for Wood's future. Change can be difficult, but there can be no improvement without change.

Submitted by Liza G. Morse (not verified) on Sat, Apr 19, 2014

When I heard the news, it broke my heart! Ms. Ely always goes beyond the call of duty and I can count the endless times she stayed beyond the hours of any other volunteer at the Wood Museum. She would attend weekend Tech seminars and constantly collaborates with community leaders, teachers, parents and students to bring together a much needed bridge of communication between elementary and high school! Three years ago, I wanted to bring Teen Techs (which was original housed at the Alameda Multicultural Center), but I needed to find a WMS faculty member that would not only be supportive of the program but actually gets it! She is truly a NERD at heart! Teen Techs has evolved since then and offers 3 different computer related programs from "frankensteining" computers to programming to NERD Jewelry, giving kids a chance to explore the different areas of Technology and find their passion. In the last 2 years of Wood Teen Techs, we have seen incredible transformations of our students and some of them became student leaders and TA's for our program. It is sad day for Teen Techs as it will be moving out of WMS as the after school program at the end of the year, but we will continue to grow and inspire our future innovators but in a different facility. Thank you Ms. Ely for all you love and support for our kids. Nerds Rock!


Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Mon, Apr 21, 2014

I am a WMS parent and am happy for Principal Harris's excellent leadership. I do not agree with the decision to force Ms. Ely to leave WMS and question the motive behind this decision simply because it makes no sense. WMS is becoming a STEAM school and Ms. Ely is one of the few teachers in the district who has received specialized training in STEAM instruction. She is also one of the few teachers who has demonstrated a successful track record of including STEAM projects in her curriculum. Ms. Ely is a leader and she may not be perceived as a "team player." I hope that the district will reconsider this decision and make room for a "team of leaders" at WMS.