One day in 2015, David Cooke had an epiphany that changed everything at Jemtegaard Middle School.
While observing two remedial math teachers work with their students from the back of a classroom, the Jemtegaard principal examined some of the school’s recent performance data with instructional coach Cheryl MacIntyre and told her that something drastic had to be done. Cooke knew the school’s faculty members couldn’t keep doing the same things they were doing and expect different results. They simply couldn’t wait any longer.
“The teachers were working their tails off and doing fantastic stuff, but they weren’t getting results. It wasn’t working,” Cooke said. “I was sitting there looking at the data, and I said, ‘It’s not moving.’ At that point, I knew we had to rip off the band-aid and start again.”
Over the next several years, Jemtegaard leaders made significant changes to the school’s curriculums, discipline policies, foundational philosophies and more. The changes weren’t easy to implement, but elicited their intended effect nonetheless. Five years ago, the middle school was failing under the No Child Left Behind Act. Now it’s routinely being awarded by prominent Washington state education groups for its academic performance increases.
In recognition of those efforts, The Association of Washington School Principals recently named Cooke as the 2020 Washington State Secondary School Principal of the Year. The award is given to individuals who set high standards for instruction, student achievement, education advocacy and community involvement, according to a news release.
“I’m proud because I thought we had a good case because as staff we’ve had success,” Cooke said. “But the award is not about me. I may be the captain of this team, but this has been a team effort. To me, it’s more of a school award. It was painful (to make those changes). It was scary for the teachers to change everything they were doing. But they knew we had to do it, and they jumped on board. It was hard work, but to their credit, they did it, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
“David exemplifies the best of the best in school leaders in his relentless pursuit of bringing adults together in a common purpose and mission,” Scott Seaman, executive director of the school principals’ association, stated in the news release. “Their focus on equity, student achievement, and intentional impact on each and every child is what brought his nomination to the top.”
Cooke is “very deserving of this recognition,” according to Brian Amundson, principal of Canyon Creek Middle School and Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School.
“What I appreciate most about David and his leadership is that he is all about creating an environment that is centered directly on the needs of the students,” said Amundson, who served as Jemtegaard’s dean of students from 2013 to 2016. “He does this by developing the skills and capacity of his staff to constantly improve their practices and focus on student growth and support. I have learned a great deal from my time working with him, both in the years I spent at JMS and since I have left. He is not afraid to try new approaches to solving problems and meeting the needs of students. Jemtegaard is a completely different school from where it was eight years ago due to David’s leadership and the hard work of the (Jemtegaard) staff. I can’t think of a principal more deserving of this award.”
State education leaders have named the Washougal middle school as a state-recognized school twice in the past two years for its work to close performance gaps between student sub-groups and demonstrate improvement for students identified for additional support.
According to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s website, 45.1 percent of Jemtegaard students showed high growth in math with 38.3 percent displaying high growth in English language arts during the 2018-19 school year.
“You can see our growth over the last couple of years,” Cooke said. “We have not only increased the number of students passing the test, but more importantly we are seeing incredible growth in each individual student.”
Jemtegaard leaders have also focused on identifying students who may require additional academic, social or emotional support. In 2019, the Washington State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development gave Jemtegaard Middle its Whole Child Award, intended to honor a school that has made significant contributions to student learning by creating a culture with programs that exemplify two or more of the five tenets of The Whole Child Initiative: healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.
“I believe the relationships he builds with students and our Jemtegaard community is one of the most important skills a principal can have,” said Jemtegaard Middle School assistant principal Tiffany McCormick. “One of David’s core values is that all kids will get what they need to thrive at Jemtegaard Middle School. David cares about every student we serve and their families. He will not hesitate to go above and beyond for any student who needs extra encouragement and support. David’s warmth and sense of humor help him build positive relationships with students and staff. David does a great job recognizing the individual talents of his staff which has helped Jemtegaard build the momentum necessary to close the achievement gap in order for our students to thrive.”
Cook is able to foster relationships with staff and community members, establish connections with students and build effective teams of educators, according to Washougal High School assistant principal Michelle Massar.
“David is all about relationships and puts relationships with others first,” said Massar, who served as the middle school’s associate principal from 2018 to 2020. “He considers Jemtegaard to be his family. He takes time to get to know students and connect with them in a unique way; it’s not a student meeting with David without a diagram drawn on the whiteboard and a funny story to help the student understand what he is trying to say. He is an ‘ideas person’ and is always thinking creatively about ways to improve the school academically and socially.
“David is also very skilled at building and leading teams. He hires and retains the best teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, instructional coaches, and other staff members, and lets their talents shine through. (Jemtegaard) is home to some of the best educators I have ever seen, and David has been a driving factor in turning the school into what it is today.”
Cooke oversaw the implementation of the Positive Behavior Intervention Support system, which features common classroom expectations, quick support responses and a focus on ensuring that students who need help are guided through restorative practices and back in the classroom as quickly as possible. This system has led to a dramatic reduction in missed instructional time and fewer discipline referrals for JMS students.
He also spearheaded the district’s “Spanish Speaking Family Night” initiative after receiving feedback from second language speaking families, who wanted to connect with the school and learn how they could be part of their students’ learning.
“David has invested in his children,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said during an Oct. 27 virtual board meeting. “(Jemtegaard) was not performing (well) when he took the helm, and over the course of about six or seven years he has turned the school around. He has created a climate and a culture that is exciting, inviting and offers success for every kid that walks in that door, a sense of family, a sense of warmth and a sense of friendship. His staff loves him and they love each other.”
Now he’s leading the school’s efforts to provide students with quality educational experiences through remote learning.
“Teachers have students for 80 minutes a week synchronously. We’re trying to get rid of the stuff that’s not important. We say that we’re cutting out all of the bad carbs and focusing on the proteins,” he said. “We’re focusing on what has to be learned instead of the entire curriculum. We believe that in the best case, the kids will continue to thrive, and worst case they’ll have a fighting chance to catch up when they come back (for in-person learning).”
Cooke grew up in Australia and moved to the United States in 1994, settling in Clark County.
He worked with at-risk students at Heritage High School for four years, then taught special education at Evergreen High School for four years. He worked at Discovery Middle School for one year before being named as an associate principal at La Center High School in 2004. The next year, he became the principal at La Center Middle School, where he worked until 2013, when he was named as the principal at Jemtegaard.
“I did my student teaching at a maximum security prison. That taught me that school is not for everybody,” he said. “I learned to try different things, and that not everyone has the same opportunities I might have. I learned about the ‘school-to-prison pipeline at an early age. After coming to America, I worked a lot with kids who have not always been successful in school, and I think that provides a good foundation for a principal, understanding that side of it. I get to see through a lens I don’t normally see through.”
The middle school’s belief statement — “If the world of education is going to change, then let it start here” — is appropriate considering the adjustments that the school has made during the past several years. Cooke knows his work isn’t done, but takes pride in what he and his team have already accomplished.
“I think we’ve built something special at (Jemtegaard),” he said. “To be there from the ground up, to build something that everybody in the community can be proud of, is the biggest joy.”