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Echo Glen School Staff, Students Making Impactful Changes, Building Community

Teacher Timna Brown demonstrates a lesson she taught in one of her biology classes about COVID-19.

Change is underway at Echo Glen School. In the past year, 10 students have graduated or earned their GED (General Equivalency Degree) -- that’s more than the four prior years combined. 

Students and staff celebrate each of those successes. “It’s an affirmation to all of us that the hard work that we do – with challenging students and challenging lives – that we are making a difference here for our kids,” said Allison Ilgenfritz, who has been principal for just over one school year. 

“It’s really important for our community to know that the goal here is that when students come, they have an opportunity to receive a great educational service. They receive social-emotional supports, they receive therapies, medical, dental and a safe place to learn and grow,” Ilgenfritz said.  

The diplomas and GEDs earned are one big piece of that overall picture. “This is a huge opportunity for our students to catch up on credits,” Ilgenfritz said. The staff at Echo Glen relaunched the school’s GED testing center, and they partner with the Open Doors Program through Renton Technical College for credit retrieval. 

At Echo Glen School, the Issaquah School District provides a 220-day school year for all students living in the facility called Echo Glen Children's Center, which is run by the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). Echo Glen currently has about 85 students from ages 12 to 18 from all over the state of Washington, serving sentences ranging from 10 days to 30 years. The state’s funding model for Echo Glen and other juvenile detention facilities has stayed the same since the 1990s. House Bill 1295 is a juvenile justice reform bill that will make a difference, Ilgenfritz said. It was signed into law in May of 2021, and recognizes the need for restructuring of fiscal support for these institutions.  

“Our funding will greatly increase, and really what that means is we will have access to more teachers. It's an increase of funding to offer more educational opportunities and courses," Ilgenfritz said, noting that they’ve seen some improvement through grants, but it has been limited. “This will be a permanent solution to the problem.” 

The education team has been working with the DCYF staff to increase cooperation and collaboration. Ilgenfritz explains that while they are technically two separate sides to the facility, it’s critical that they function more as a team than in years past. The strong partnership between the district and DCYF is key to the program improvements and new ideas being put in place, Ilgenfritz said. “We feel very supported by our DCYF counterparts to make this magic happen," she added. 

They have been working to make other meaningful additions, with the goal of modeling Echo Glen School as closely as possible to other high schools in the Issaquah School District. One new addition was the creation of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports. They have also implemented a robust data collection system to help track students’ daily highs and lows, behaviorally. When students arrive at the facility, staff from the school and from DCYF work together to determine what specific services they need. And, they do their best to learn about each student as an individual to best meet their needs while they are at Echo Glen.  

“It’s really important that we learn about their history,” Ilgenfritz said. We talk about what their interests are – what makes them who they are as a student (and) their challenges that they’ve experienced outside of school.” 

The school has 12 certificated staff and nine classified staff. Because of the unique circumstances, if a staff member is out sick, they all work to help cover that person’s classes or assignments. 

It isn’t easy work, for the students or the teachers, but it is rewarding. “They have chosen to work with this population,” Ilgenfritz said. “They see the promise.” 

What does that promise look like when it comes to fruition at Echo Glen? It looks like a smile on the face of a student who wasn’t able or willing to be happy when they first arrived at the school. It looks like students who come to talk with staff members about small moments that went well for them during the day. It looks like the new “Parent University,” led by Lisa Koenigsberg-Roshon, the school’s education advocate. The initial session launched late last month and has had six committed families, with other families asking to be part of the next session when it begins. 

“What all of this says to me is that we are building a school community,” Ilgenfritz said.  

Students, Staff Create First Echo Glen Student Council

This year, the school has its first student council, including leaders from classes and from their cottages, which are their living spaces on campus. “We’re working to build student voice. They want to work on some things for fun and also make some institutional changes,” Ilgenfritz said. The council is hoping the school might be able to provide a “beats lab,” because music is a big part of many students’ lives. At the other end of the spectrum, the students want to communicate with the Legislature about some of their needs. 

One of the student leaders who helped spur the idea for a student council said he wanted to help provide options for students so that they aren’t bored. They have already implemented an incentive program with students of the week and students of the month, which involves students being nominated for making good choices and a party at the end of each month for those who are recognized. 

“We’re really trying to make the kids, my peers, know school can be fun,” the student leader said. [We are not using the student’s name, or sharing any photos of students who attend Echo Glen School because they are minors who have been convicted of crimes in the state of Washington]. One of the other projects they’re discussing is how they can add more after-school activities, such as art, school news and more. 

Students have jobs on campus as well, an aspect that helps provide a sense of accomplishment and belonging. “You can hold yourself to a higher standard,” the student leader said. 

Ilgenfritz said pieces such as the on-campus jobs are important. “Students really want to feel like they have a place, a purpose,” she said. 

The student leader said that he has had trouble speaking in front of groups, so working with the student council ideas is helping him be more vocal within the school community. 

“Every student has a gift. This guy has the ability to do really good things in his community,” Ilgenfritz said. “He’s thinking on a much bigger scale. I’m hoping he can be a community organizer someday.” 

The student said Ilgenfritz is always checking in with him and his fellow students. “She’s the best. … She’s always happy. I know Ms. Allison has a higher standard for me, and that’s why I’m trying to exceed up here,” he said, gesturing up above his own head.

Teachers, Staff Share Why They Work at Echo Glen 

Across campus, it’s passing period, and students are moving from class to lunch. In the math classroom, where students learn algebra and geometry, teacher Ryan Fitzgibbons and paraprofessional Mark Pfister are spending their break playing a game of chess. The walls are decorated with posters about math, strategies and examples. In this class, they always recognize the “mathematician of the day,” who has done well academically and behaviorally – for example, a student who offers answers or who helped a peer. 

“I found out that there’s no such thing as a ‘math person.’ I really enjoy seeing the lightbulb turn on for students – those moments here really make me feel special,” Fitzgibbons said. 

Most of the Echo Glen staff choose to work at the school for one of three reasons – or a combination of these reasons, Ilgenfritz said. “For some, it’s personal. We like working with tough kids because they’re interesting and unique. We also have a lot of flexibility here, which means we can do out of the box things. And a global reason is that if we can get these kids now and turn their lives around now, it’s better for everyone. If we do a really good job here, we can lessen the amount of people in prison later on.” 

In another classroom, bold geometric shapes adorn the windows, and a sign on the doors announces “Scientists at work.” Inside, teacher Timna Brown is cleaning up after the previous class and preparing for the next. A simulated fireplace glows cozily, and music is playing. Around the room, posters feature famous scientists. At the front of the room, a large sign says simply “YET” in neon letters. 

During this visit a week before Halloween, Brown is dressed as a scientist in scrubs and a lab coat. It’s clear from her demeanor as she talks about her classes and curriculum that she works diligently to make biology engaging for her students.  

“We’re doing a lot of microscope work right now,” Brown says of their current unit. She and her students were also using an incubator to grow bacteria samples that they collected from around the classroom, such as inside a student’s nose, the toilet, the door handle, the garbage can and other locations. 

Brown is developing or adapting much of the curriculum as she goes from “Principals of Biomedical Science,” a Project Lead the Way course that she taught elsewhere. 

Asked why she chooses to teach at Echo Glen now, Brown says simply “Because of the kids. What I would say is that the kids deserve to have fun doing science.” She adds that many of her students from throughout the state haven’t had the opportunity to take classes like this one. 

In another recent lesson, students took a sample of their own DNA with a cheek swab and checked it out under the microscope. “It blows their minds that they’re made up of all these small pieces,” Brown said. Giving them opportunities that other kids get to have just by virtue of where they grow up is critical, she added. “The kids are great. It’s all the adult stuff that is hard.” 

Last year, the facility received a grant of nearly $700,000 through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to purchase science equipment, updated technology, curriculum and other materials. Because it’s a detention center, all materials such as beakers for science have additional safety requirements, which increases costs. Every piece of equipment from microscopes to pencils is numbered, categorized and labeled for safety.  

One corner of Brown’s classroom is decorated with artwork that students created for Brooke Vossler, a paraprofessional who works at Echo Glen. “It’s super special to me. I keep every single thing,” Vossler says, touching the art. She originally worked as an online teacher and then volunteered as a mentor at Echo Glen before beginning her current position about a year ago. 

“It’s tough. These kids really put you through it. But once these kids trust you, then you have them for life,” she said. The job is challenging but every day is different and interesting, Vossler said. “You see so much growth in these students while they’re here. It’s really special to see that. … I love being here because I know that I’m doing something that matters.” 

Above, teacher Timna Brown demonstrates a lesson she taught in one of her biology classes about COVID-19, including what the virus does inside a person's body. Below, paraprofessional Brooke Vossler shows artwork that Echo Glen students made for her.

Paraprofessional Brooke Vossler shows artwork that students made for her.