Supt. Mellody Matthes: Tukwila's champion of its schools, students
By DEAN RADFORD
Tukwila Reporter Editor
September 20, 2012 · 3:21 PM
Mellody Matthes wears a lot of hats in the Tukwila School District.
She’s the interim superintendent and for now she’s also overseeing the district’s curriculum, something she’s done for two years.
But one job doesn’t come with a title. She wants everyone to remember something.
“Tukwila is an amazing place,” she said. “I want us to get to recognize that. We should be very prideful in who we are.”
Her concern is that the district will lose its momentum, including improved test scores at some grade levels, if it doesn’t move beyond the controversy that led to the resignation of her predecessor, Ethelda Burke, in July.
She welcomed about 2,900 students to start the school year on Sept. 5.
The Tukwila School Board appointed Matthes as interim superintendent while it prepares to search for Burke’s permanent replacement. Matthes says she wants to keep the superintendent’s job, her ultimate career goal.
“I am making a difference here,” she said. “I hope I can continue to do that.”
For two years she’s been the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. She has a doctorate degree from Washington State University.
Matthes, 52, began her 13-year teaching career in 1981 as a language arts teacher at Kentwood High School in Kent. She was a principal in the Shelton School District and was the executive director of human resources for the Oak Harbor District for six years.
She was a finalist for the superintendent’s job in Port Townsend and Sequim.
Matthes points to the “wonderful” accomplishments in the Tukwila School District that she wants to see continue.
One is the continued increase in test scores at the elementary level, she said, adding that some grades are above the state average.
The district is closely examining what works best in the classroom and bases its professional development on what it learns, she said.
“That really helps us do the best things for our kids,” she said, so that what is taught and how it’s taught matches the needs of the district’s students.
At the same time, the district is grappling with some low test scores at the secondary level, meaning middle school and high school, she said. For example, eighth-grade test scores dropped in math; at the high school level, “significant” gains were made, then ground was lost, she said.
There are built-in challenges for a school district where some students live in poverty – last year 77 percent of the district’s students qualified for free or reduced-cost meals. The district has counted about 200 homeless students.
Tukwila’s schools are among the most diverse in the nation. About 30 percent of its students are English Language Learners, many of whom have come to Tukwila from around the world. Sixty four languages are spoken in the schools, along with numerous dialects.
“The diversity is really challenging for all of us, because kids will come to us at varying age levels with extreme differences of educational background,” she said.
That extreme could include a 17-year-old boy who grew up in a refugee camp who’s never had formal schooling. The education plan for that student is “much different” than the one for a student who has gone to school entirely in the United States, she said.
Tailoring an education program for each student is known as differentiation.
“That happens all the time here,” she said.
Last year, the school district introduced three new curriculums, which Matthes said was “a lot to do” in one year.
Grades kindergarten through five now have a new writing curriculum called Step up to Writing that, as she describes it, will “flow” all the way to the 12th grade.
“To have that kind of alignment is very powerful for kids, because they are to going learn a structured style of writing that they are going to build off from elementary school all the way up,” she said.
A new middle school science curriculum that stresses an inquiry method of learning will meet the new standards for science education.
A new language arts program at Foster High School has textbooks that align with the new “common core” standards and provide materials that will help teachers tailor a program for students, she said.
English Language Learners and those students with higher needs are in a block class, where they will get extra support, she said. “That will be a very powerful tool for our students,” she said.
Matthes is looking even further ahead, five years out, to work on a strategic plan with the Tukwila School Board that will deal with curriculum, finance and facilities. The last plan expired a year ago.
It will answer the question, “Where do we want to be in five years?”
The district’s facilities, which were built at about the same time, are “aging,” Matthes said. And they are “bulging at the seams,” with a student population of about 3,000.
What to do with those buildings will require some “in-depth discussions,” she said. Possibilities including building new schools, adding on to Foster or buying land, she said. The district reviewed its repair needs last spring that include new roofs and boilers.
Total needs are in the millions of dollars, she said.
Matthes embraces the challenges of the district’s top job.
“I am a goal-oriented person,” she said. “I can see the possibilities and opportunities for growth here.”
Teachers who work in the Tukwila School District “probably could go anywhere,” she said. They understand that the district has diverse languages and cultures and some students are poor, she said.
“But they choose to deal and work with these students and they love it, just like I love it,” she said.
They embrace the students who “so want to be here and so want to learn,” she said.
TUKWILA'S SCHOOLS BY THE NUMBERS
Number of students: 2,938
Free or reduced meals: 2,274
Number of teachers: 185
English Language Learners: 847
Number of languages: 64
Total number of employees: 345Contact Tukwila Reporter Editor Dean Radford at email@example.com or 425-255-3484 ext. 5050.