School Design for Success


History of Bellevue International School

Bellevue International School was the sole creation of six visionary teachers, and has consistently ranked in the top tier of schools nationwide...Read more

History of Kirkland International Community School (ICS)

Kirkland International Community School had no computers the first year, and our students were housed in portables with little shelter from the rain...Yet, by the second year we achieved the highest writing scores on statewide exams...Read more

Humanities Curriculum at Bellevue International School and Kirkland ICS

Quarterly grading periods, winter breaks and summer recesses were mere interruptions in one continuous curriculum...Read more

How Social Promotion Gives a "Pass" to Schools that Fail

Ask any teacher whether social promotion "works", and you will receive a clear answer: It doesn't...Read more

First Test Scores from Bellevue International School and Kirkland International School

These scores were achieved by schools that were untried, built on promises, and which had yet to acquire a reputation for rigor and success...Read more

Creating A Powerful Teaching Culture

If the teaching culture is not transformed, then "school renewal" will be an empty promise...Read more

Making it Better vs. Making it New

"Better" and "different" may sometimes be confused as charter schools describe their mission...Read more

How Marysville Arts & Technology H.S. Began

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."Read more



ICS Bids Good-Bye to Founding Father, Dr. Bruce Saari

Dr. Bruce Saari, founder of Lake Washington International School, has decided to pursue a new career path, switching from teaching to administration. In June, Dr. Saari resigned from the Lake Washington school district and accepted a position at Kentwood High School in the Kent school district, minutes from his home, where he is currently completing a preschool-through-twelfth-grade administrative internship. He has taken this new position with great enthusiasm for the opportunities and challenges it offers.

Dr. Saari began his career in 1971 at Lake Sammamish High School, where he spent 19 years teaching a variety of courses, including American literature, British literature, modern drama, and numerous electives. It was during his tenure there that he developed a two-year honors humanities program, which taught him the value of having the same students for two or more years in a row.

In 1983, Dr. Saari was the recipient of Stanford University's Frederick Emmons Terman Award for "Outstanding Contributions to Teaching," presented at Stanford.

In 1986, he received a National Endowment for the Humanities independent study grant.

And in 1988, he was selected to participate in a yearlong Fullbright Exchange in Denmark, where he taught thirteenth-grade students who were preparing for the university.

Dr. Saari received his doctorate in humanistic anthropology from the Union Institute, Cincinnati in 1991.

Convinced that "all schools can do better than they do," Dr. Saari and five colleagues began to reexamine the elements of the teaching and learning equation.

After submitting a proposal for the new school to the board, they entered the Schools for the 21st Century competition. When Dr. Saari and his colleagues won a $300,000 grant, the Bellevue school district, which was not initially receptive to their plans, approved them and gave them a building to use.

The Bellevue International School was born and it quickly bloomed into the top performer it is today, with over 90% of its graduates going on to college. The success of the school, with its diverse student population, was attributed to its "program and philosophy" which Dr. Saari and his colleagues had developed.

In 1997, after "graduating" with his first class, Dr. Saari left the Bellevue International School for the Lake Washington school district. He agreed to help establish ICS, which is substantially based on the Bellevue model, provided he had the freedom to improve on the process that he had helped develop in Bellevue.

With just a handful of carefully selected teachers, dedicated parents, talented students, and a few portables at Redmond High School, ICS was born.

Though we are sad to see Dr. Saari go, his legacy lives on at ICS in the school's curriculum design and high standard of academic excellence. He has been a wonderful teacher and role model for students, faculty, and parents. We wish him the very best, and thank him for the four years he dedicated to our school.

-Anita Wood, Editor, November, 2001 Issue ICS Compendium

Arts and Tech School Seeks to Teach
Special Skills in a Smaller Setting

Marysville--A Penguin might seem like an odd choice for a school mascot, but according to ninth-grade student Stacey Lawler, the Antarctic waterfowl has a lot in common with the Marysville Arts and Technology High School.

"Some people might underestimate us because we're smaller, but we're unique," said Lawler of both her school and her school's black-and-silver-hued mascot.

The school is certainly unique in both its size, nestled in the corner of an office park on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, and its age, having just opened its doors to 130 ninth and tenth grade students on Oct. 22 of last year. But according to Marysville Arts and Technology High School Principal Bruce Saari, what truly makes the school stand out is the emphasis it places on both the community within the school and the extra set of skills it seeks to instill in its students.

"College professors and graphic designers alike will say that no software program out there can make someone an artist," said Saari. "One of ur goals is to teach our students to think and see as artists, so they can take that training into the digital realm and apply it in all areas of their studies."

As its name suggests, the mission statement of the school has been to create a learning environment where artistic disciplines, computer design technologies and academic fundamentals are all part of the curriculum. To this end, all students are required to take a year of art classes and receive intense instruction on how to use these new tools before they're allowed to have any hands on experience.

"I always make sure to tell people that we're not just 'playing with computers' at our school," said Saari. "It's only after a great deal of training and preparation that our students can begin to apply their knowledge properly."

Saari cites the math program as an example of how the school combines "an outstanding high school education with a special emphasis" on these additional skills.

"For our math curriculum, we require Algebra1, Geometry and Algebra 2 because these courses are proven to develop fundamental skills," said Saari. "We then couple these courses with the use of a cognitive tutor software program that stresses problem solving applications. In this way, we can offer the best of both worlds to our students."

Student access to computers remains constant in all the school's subjects and classes, from cell structure models designed on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for science courses to public presentations put together with Microsoft Powerpoint for social studies courses. After less than a full year of instruction, many students at the school have become so comfortable and familiar with these new tools that they've even wound up teaching the adults in their lives a thing or two.

"I helped my dad out with Access, said ninth-grade student Victorial Pontrantolfi. "He was having trouble with it, so I put together a list of his business clients for him. I'm scared sometimes how much I know about this stuff now."

"My mom was putting together a presentation and looking for someone who knew how to use Powerpoint, and my brother was trying to do a school report, so I showed them both what I'd learned," said Lawler. "Once you learn the language, it's like knowing how to write and talk in Chinese. It blows me away."

Maddie Voie, recently elected vice-president of the school's Associated Student Body, recalled how well her and her fellow class officers' newfound technical skills saw them through their presentations to the Marysville School District Board of Directors Feb. 17.

"We had about an hour and a half to put everything together on Powerpoint, but we were all amazed by how well it came across," said Voie.

Saari was impressed but not surprised by his students' performance under pressure.

"When these students give their presentations in the classroom, the critiques are as extraordinary as the presentations themselves," said Saari. "Their audience of fellow students listens respectfully, and offers them fair and mature guidance on what their strengths were, as well as how they can improve their performances. After a while, they can't help but become adept at it."

Saari also attributes many of these accomplishments to the sense of community and commitment that the school seeks to foster among its students, starting with the application process.

"We want our students and their families to make an informed choice when they select our school, so that they're getting exactly what they expect," said Saari. "The purpose of the application itself is not to screen out students, but to make sure that students and families are reflecting on their choice, rather than making a reflexive choice. That being said, we're still accepting all students who send us completed applications. Our biggest challenge right now is getting the word out to the community."

To achieve this end, 899 eighth-grade and ninth-grade students' families have received notices by mail this year inviting them to apply to the school. Saari sent out more than 1,000 similar envelopes in the spring of 2003 when his promotional efforts faced an even greater challenge.

"I was brought on board in an advisory capacity around March of last year, and by April 1 I was the school's first and only hire, so I had to conduct between 15 to 20 evening meetings with interested parents, sometimes only one or two at a time, in ordert to sell them on the idea of this school," said Saari, who also cofounded the Bellevue International School and the Lake Washington International School in Redmond. "The building itself didn't even exist yet, but by the time we started conducting interviews for the teaching staff in June, we'd already recruited all 130 of our students. These families were wiling to take a very big risk on us, and I'm grateful to them for having so much faith in our vision."

"When we first walked through the door, this whole place was still a construction zone, and I wondered how they were going to hold school here," said Lawler. "But even if it hadn't wound up finished or furnished by the time we started classes, I still think it would have turned out to be a pretty decent school. It's the people inside of a school that make it great, not the tables or desks they sit at."

"I was terrified of this school at first," admitted Pontrantolfi." I even had a nightmare that there were only going to be four people in my whole class. But I don't think you can realize how beneficial a smaller school is until you're in it. I'm getting about the same grades that I was before, but I'm actually understanding the work more now. And all the teachers talk to one another, so they all know your strengths and weaknesses."

"If there are two tests scheduled for the same day, one of the teachers will move his or her test back a day, to give you enough time to study for both," said ninth-grade student Bethany Hayes. "Everyone who's here wants to be here. The teachers and the students like to work."

Although certain details of the school's PE program and extracurricular activities continue to be worked out, especially since the school has no gymnasium, Saari pointed to the progress that the school has achieved in these areas so far, including their participation in basketball intramurals and the institution of a host of clubs devoted to everything from drama and music to chess and poetry.

"We have to take things one step at a time, keep our footing sure and remain focused as we go," said Saari.

"A lot of people don't realize how much room this school has to grow," said Voie. "We only have ninth and tenth-grade students right now, but we'll eventually expand to have freshmen all the way through seniors going to school here. This is our opportunity to start from scratch on the ground floor of something new."

by Kirk Boxleitner, The Marysville Globe

Compact Learning

MARYSVILLE -- Its compact quarters are a stark contrast to the 83-acre Marysville-Pilchuck High School campus, one of the largest in Washington.

The Marysville Arts and Technology High School, tucked away in a tree-lined business park on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, has a single hallway for eight classrooms and a computer lab.

The school, which opened in October, is small by design.

"We don't have tennis courts. We don't have a gym. We don't have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."

Arts and Technology is part of a growing trend: a school trying to give students stronger connections to their classes.

Both Marysville-Pilchuck and Marysville Junior High School have received grants to break their campuses into smaller learning communities that nurture more personal relationships between teachers and students -- and students and their peers.V

"Smallness is big," Saari said.

Math teacher Karen Berard has worked at both high schools and finds similarities in the students, but she says the small-school environment is allowing her to reach more of them.

Berard, one of the school's six teachers, is energized at the tiny campus with 130 freshmen and sophomores in a school that eventually will expand to 230 over four grades -- about a tenth the size of Marysville-Pilchuck, which had an enrollment of 2,467 in the fall.

On any given day, up to 20 students find their way to an after-school math tutorial. At three larger schools where Berard has taught in the past, she might see two or three in a week.

Part of the reason for the big turnout is that it is hard for students to hide at Arts and Technology where teachers know everyone and ties are required wardrobe when boys give oral presentations.

Parents are also kept in the loop. The tutoring program is promoted on report cards and in letters to parents whose students are earning anything less than a C.

Where Berard once would hand out failing grades for close to a third of her students, she now expects about 20 percent not to make the grade. And even that number is deceiving, because there are no Ds or Fs at the school. In their place is a "U," for unsatisfactory, a mark for students who score below a 70 percent or C minus. Students earning a U must repeat the class until they can show they have become proficient.

"We could get down to 15 percent," Berard said, referring to first-semester grades. "I expect failure rates to be way down. I don't like failing students. There is no joy in that."

Berard attributes much of the difference to the small size of the school, which she believes provides a tighter safety net for students who might slip through the cracks for either academic or social reasons.

She sees it as a teacher and as a parent.

Her daughter [redacted] sailed through each of the rigorous Washington Assessment of Student Learning statewide exams as a seventh-grader, but she struggled with grades on a large campus.

When the school opened in the fall, 13 percent of the students had faced court orders to attend school after chronic absences.

"A lot of kids came here because they didn't fit in where they were before," Berard said. "You are going to find some kids who felt lost on the big campus. My daughter really felt lost."

The Marysville School Board recently visited the Arts and Technology school for a meeting, tour and discussion with students, teachers and staff.

"What I came away with is that sometimes the perception is it is a school that only kids that excel academically go to," said Vicki Gates, school board president. "I think that might be the perception, but in reality it is a school that accepts all students."

"It was better than I thought it was going to be," said Maddie V., a ninth-grader. "I thought it was going to be a nerd school. It is a lot cooler."

Saari, the principal, is an old-hand at creating new small schools. After 19 years in large high schools, he and five other teachers started the Bellevue International School in 1991. Six years later, he started the Lake Washington International School in Redmond. Both posted impressive test scores, but he said he was more pleased with the collegial learning atmosphere they nurtured.

Saari and the other teachers in Bellevue met on their own time for more than a year to plan the school. They knew the attributes they wanted: a commitment to academic standards, shared instructional approaches and information about each student, an emphasis on fundamental skills and a chance to later build on those skills in a meaningful way.

Saari was hired by the Marysville district last spring to start the new school.

Art and technology may be in the school's name and a part of the curriculum, but they are not the main emphasis, Saari said. For instance, students won't learn to program computers at the school but they may be asked to design a Web site on Macbeth.

Some students already have discovered that the small school experience isn't for them and have transferred, Saari said.

"You have some kids who miss the big American high school experience," he said. "Attrition comes with the territory until people know more about you."

That was also the case in the first three years at the international schools as students, parents and the communities got a feel for what the small school offers, he said.

Some Marysville teachers have questioned opening the new school -- which has a $34,900-a-month cost for lease, utilities and capital improvements -- at a time the district is facing financial problems, said Elaine Hanson, president of the 650-member Marysville Education Association teachers' union.

Even so, Hanson said she has seen that the school has a lot of promise for students of many ability levels. "I'm all for smaller learning communities," Hanson said. "I just want to make sure there is equity."

Kaitlin O. returned to public school this year after two years of being home-schooled. It was solely her decision to try Arts and Technology, said her mother, Rachel.

"She has blossomed," Rachel O. said. "I think for her it is important that her teachers know who she is. I think that makes a difference. She really isn't just a face in the crowd."

Other students freely acknowledge they enrolled at the new school at their parents' insistence.

Brian C., another ninth-grader, said the teachers have high expectations and a good grasp of what individual students are capable of.

"Because they know you," he said, "they can take you to a different level."

-Eric Stevick, Everett Herald 3/1/2004

Judge To Hear Complaints In Bid To End Teachers Strike:

MARYSVILLE — A Snohomish County Superior Court judge this afternoon will hear two complaints asking to declare the Marysville teachers strike illegal and order teachers back to work.

But yesterday, teachers, students and parents tried to keep to many of the routines they've cultivated over the past few weeks, amid anxiety over what today may bring.

Teachers walked picket lines for a state-record 43rd day, several students rallied in hopes of encouraging a settlement, and parents and other residents remained split in their support of teachers and district leaders.

Evidence of that community divide could be found yesterday in the form of a yard sign — "Erase the School Board" — and in the rude gesture of a driver as he passed a picket line.

Judge Linda Krese will hear the complaints, by the Marysville School District and parents group Tired of the Strike, at 1 p.m.

Marysville School District spokeswoman Judy Parker said that if Krese orders teachers back to work, the schools will be ready to open tomorrow. Meanwhile, Marysville Education Association (MEA) President Elaine Hanson reiterated that the strike would end when School Board members offer a fair deal.

Parents and students said they would follow news of the court hearing closely, while the 650-member MEA plans to rally today outside the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett.

"In this community, (today's) a pretty huge day," said Steve Soule, organizer of the group Parents For Kids, which says it supports any solution that gets Marysville kids back to school and is seeking community volunteers to teach students while teachers strike.

"It's a day of reckoning, so to speak, and both sides think they'll win. Whatever the judge says will set a precedent. But, if the injunction fails, or it passes and teachers violate it, the community will be divided even further."

Outside Marysville Junior High, math teacher Janice Clancy and special-education teacher Mike Wray said they planned to go to the courthouse and were optimistic that the judge would not force teachers back to work.

If the judge does issue an injunction, the two said, the union would meet to determine what to do next. But they said they don't want to be forced back to work without a new contract.

"We've been out here six weeks. We can't go back without a change," Wray said. "It would be throwing away everything we've been doing, and it would be turning our backs on all that."

Added Clancy: "I always felt appreciated before and that what I did mattered, but with the contract (the district is) offering, I don't feel that way."

Across town at the district's new 145-student Arts & Technology High School, Principal Bruce Saari sat in his office, the lone person in the building. Outside the school, housed in the town's old Hewlett-Packard building, the empty parking lot collected piles of leaves. Inside, new computers and science equipment sat unused.

Saari, who was instrumental in the 1990s in establishing the Bellevue International School and Lake Washington International School — both well-known for high student achievement — said he's anxious to begin work at Marysville's $524,000 small-school endeavor.

"It's been challenging," he said. "We'll start the year late but still have a successful year because there's so much important work to do. We're just going to roll up our sleeves and get to it when we can."

At Marysville-Pilchuck High School, junior Shyra Roe and sophomore Haley Matz were getting ready to run laps at the track.

"Everyone's frustrated, even the people who don't like school," Roe said. "Everyone wants to be back. I don't get why they can't solve it while we're in school."

-J.J. Jensen, Seattle Times, 10/15/2003

Saari leads safari to district’s small schools

KINGSTON — Kingston High School planning principal Bruce Saari will be the first to admit that “small” does not necessarily equal success.

Saari, who has founded three small learning communities in the Seattle and Marysville areas, has made the small schools philosophy —a new approach to public school teaching — his passion as an educator.

But small is not necessarily better,” he is quick to point out.

Our first option is not to experiment with kids,” he added, “but to create effective small learning communities.”

Saari dismisses the notion that small learning communities are a pie in the sky concept. Hired by the North Kitsap School District earlier this year, his very real task is to create a curriculum for a new 800-student high school in Kingston.

The school is planned to be broken down into four 200-student “SLCs”, —the chosen acronym for small learning communities.

This is very exciting, very important work,” Saari said. “We all need a mission in life. This is my mission.”

He is well aware of the work that goes into creating small schools and said his own philosophies mesh well with NKSD’'s Guiding Principles, the district’s educational road-map.

(North Kitsap’'s) Guiding Principles can all be achieved via the process of small learning communities,” he said.

Saari’'s job description before the Kingston-area school opens is prolific. He has taken over as principal at the Parent Assisted Learning (PAL) program and will likely oversee a task force aimed at integrating and blending curriculum in grades nine through twelve in the district. He’'ll also oversee curriculum integration for grades six through twelve, —similar to the grade-level range he helped establish as founder of Bellevue and Lake Washington International Schools. He said he’'ll also provide guidance at North Kitsap High School’s recently-born Polaris International School of 160 students and continue planning for the new Kingston High School as well.

And, he'’ll spend much time at Kingston Junior High School — where many of his future students currently attend.

Saari was born on Whidbey Island and graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1965. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Washington, he taught in Samammish High School from 1971 to 1989.

Following 19 years at the school, Saari felt that educators could do better than the large-scale, assembly-line high school that he was accustomed to at Samammish.

I saw a lack of enthusiasm and meaning there,” Saari said, adding that he witnessed what he called teachers and students “going through the motions.”

He became impassioned in his search to find a different, more effective way to educate students.

I just saw that we could do better,” he said.

In 1989, he went to Denmark for a year on a Fulbright exchange and also achieved his PhD from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio in anthropology in 1991.

From there, Saari and five other teachers went to Bellevue’'s School Board to ask for a grant to create a new small learning community within the district. After the six teachers received $300,000 from Washington’'s Schools for the 21st Century grant, the board gave the go-ahead. Utilizing an abandoned elementary school, the teachers created a 150-student six through 12 school, beginning with only sixth and seventh graders.

The six teachers designed a curriculum based around essential questions that each student took with them and built upon at each grade. Teachers worked together to monitor each students’ progress and ensure their class curriculum was built upon the curriculum that preceded it.

In the school, summer time and winter break were viewed as merely interruptions,” Saari said. “New learning was always based upon prior learning.”

Saari’ [as co-founder of] Bellevue International School also brought forth a concept unheard of in a public school system in the early 1990s--what he calls “mastery learning versus social promotion.”

In 1993, Saari’'s school held back 13 eighth graders in a class of 100 for attaining below a C- grade, according to a 1994 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. Saari, with the founders of the school, believed that mastery of material was more important than the aforementioned social promotion — even after eighth grade. Saari said he believes that if students are unable to master subject matter necessary for the next grade, they need to work until they are prepared, even if it means holding them back a grade.

Saari followed his initial Bellevue students through graduation and was then recruited by the Lake Washington School District in 1997 to establish an international school there as a clone of the Bellevue School.

Both schools have enjoyed success in state-wide testing. In only one example, Lake Washington International’'s Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores for seventh graders far exceeded state averages. The school scored a 91.5, 87.2 and 85 in writing, math and reading, respectively. The state average at the time was 48.5, 27.4 and 39.8, respectively.

He gained his Principal Certification in 2002 from City University in Seattle and left Lake Washington to serve as Director of Silicon Valley Essential High School — a charter school in Palo Alto, Calif. The school was in shambles when he got there, Saari said, and efforts with his colleagues to keep the school up and running failed.

We tried to save the school,” Saari commented. “We were idealists. But we couldn’t mount a recovery.”

Saari then moved back to Washington to establish a small school with an emphasis on design in Marysville. The Marysville Arts and Technology School only existed for a year, however, as budget cuts and general district woes stemming from the Marysville District strike closed the school in 2003. [Note: A&T did not close; see articles above on A&T]

That’'s when Saari discovered that North Kitsap School District was seeking a planning principal for a new high school — one that would be made up of four 200-student small learning communities similar in mission to the ones he founded.

For about two years, Saari will plan and help implement small learning communities in the district. But another task he said he’s proud to take on is the community dialogue concerning them. He said he is eager to discuss the district’s plans for both its future Kingston school and existing North Kitsap High School.

I stand ready to meet with anyone who calls, whether it’s one person or 10,” he said.

North Kitsap Herald, Jun 10, rev. 2008


One of the main forces behind the North Kitsap School District’s attempt to improve its educational and instructional practices will be departing at the end of the school year. Kingston High School planning principal Bruce Saari announced his retirement Thursday. It is effective June 30 [Saari will continue consulting, and will be working with student teachers at Antioch, Seattle).

With his departure, the NKSD has been thrust into an unusual situation, said Gregg Epperson, NKSD executive director of student support services. With Roy Herrera also leaving NKHS and the Poulsbo Junior High interim principalship coming to a close at the end of the year, the district will be searching for three new principals at the secondary level during a time of great change.

Saari has been one of the chief architects of that change.

"I wasn’t intending just two years when I came here, but life happens to you,” Saari said, noting his affection for the work being done within the NKSD. “I just feel gratitude at having had the opportunity to be involved in so many brilliant projects. This work represents the high point of my professional career and this stage is complete."

As he finishes out this year, Saari will help guide the process into its next stages of completing the series of learning improvement days for teachers as well as starting the process of staffing NKHS and KHS for the 2007 school year.

"He’s a brilliant educator. He knows how teachers need to be teaching, he’s a real expert on that," said school board director Ed Strickland. "They’ve been teaching teachers really how to teach more student-centered and that’s more important than SLCs."

Saari joined the district in July 2004 and has since been instrumental in implementing significant curriculum alignment and instructional development work, Epperson said.

Upon his arrival, Saari jumped in as co-chair of the 9-12 instructional program task force and began working toward the goal of opening lines of communication between staff.

As part of that work, he designed agendas for the 2005-2006 secondary learning improvement days, which focused on strengthening clarity within departments on the aspects of the changes ahead.

Though his work in the district was not exclusive to the SLCs, Saari led the group of teachers that developed the preliminary slate of three SLC designs.

That process will continue to evolve, Saari said, and he believes it is on course.

"I’ll tell you, those three (SLCs) are so robust ... that they will be outstanding SLCs in any high school," Saari said.

"It’s becoming clear to (parents and community) what great potential there is in this movement and I feel satisfied at having been part of this."

Saari plans to pursue retirement projects after returning to his family’s Hobart farm this summer. With 35 years of educational experience, he said he will still be available for educational improvement consultation.

-N.Kitsap Herald/by B.Mickelson, Mar 25 2006