Troubled schools submit fix-it plans

/ 19 September 2012 / eunice

Kim McGuire, Star Tribune, September 19, 2012 –┬áStudents will get an extra 10 minutes of math each day at Central Park Elementary in Roseville.

Bethune Elementary in Minneapolis wants to cut suspensions by 12 percent over the next school year.

Piedmont Elementary in Duluth is helping parents of preschoolers expand their children’s vocabularies to get them ready for reading.

The strategies are a first look at how some of Minnesota’s 127 lowest-performing schools plan to boost student achievement under a new accountability system that gives educators much more flexibility in building a roadmap toward improvement.

State education officials say the new system offers a better, potentially faster fix for struggling schools than the requirements under No Child Left Behind, which branded almost half of Minnesota’s 2,255 schools as failures and mandated such unpopular steps as hiring tutors and firing principals.

“Now, it’s not just about what these schools are going to do to improve. It’s about how they’re going to improve,” said Steve Dibb, who directs the Minnesota Department of Education’s school support division.

The Star Tribune obtained draft copies of the improvement plans that the state’s newly designated priority and focus schools presented to the department this fall. Those schools receive federal poverty aid and received the lowest scores under the new state ranking system.

The newspaper’s analysis of those plans indicated that many schools have conducted extensive reviews of their weaknesses and come up with detailed strategies to address their problems, with some even naming specific administrators responsible for making sure the goals are met. Others have simply tweaked local plans already in place.

What’s different

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), hundreds of Minnesota schools were required to write improvement plans, which typically weren’t implemented until the second half of the school year.

The state’s new accountability system, created when a federal waiver freed the state from NCLB mandates, requires fewer schools to come up with plans, many of which went into effect this month.

“We will be constantly looking at these plans, asking schools to see what’s working and what’s not working,” said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Education Department.

Many schools’ plans cite strategies to improve curriculum for special education students and those who are learning English. Others seek to improve math scores, which declined across the board last year after the state imposed tougher new standards.

Brooklyn Center’s secondary school, designated as priority, wants to increase the percentage of math-proficient students from 23 percent in 2012 to 33 percent next year.

To do that, the district wants to establish a math lab curriculum tailored to English learners, offer more after-school help and train middle school teachers on the “flipped” classroom model that lets students watch lectures online so classroom time is freed up for more interaction with teachers.

Home-grown solutions

While school administrators still don’t like that the state is assigning labels to struggling schools, they say the new accountability system allows them to come up with home-grown solutions rather than a prescribed federal fix.

“I think our plans show there’s a more effective way to improve, a more respectful way, that allows us to really home in on our issues,” said Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester.

Many of the plans for Minneapolis’ 36 priority and focus schools reflect the district’s priorities, such as evaluating teachers, adapting instruction to meet student’s individual needs, and increasing parental involvement. St. Paul, which had 17 similarly designated schools, submitted plans that are modified versions of one required of all district schools.

Officials from both metro districts said that plans reflect a coordinated effort to align local, state and federal requirements.

“Still, this is a very different approach than what we’ve had in the past,” said Matthew Mohs, a St. Paul Schools director of funded programs. “I think what most people will notice with these plans are greater levels of specificity.”

Will it work?

While state education department officials are confident the new school accountability system will ultimately produce better results, it’s far from perfect.

For example, the most recent Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores for the 2011-12 school year weren’t available when the state was doling out priority and focus schools designations this spring.

When the most recent test scores were factored into a second round of state rankings this fall, some schools made huge gains in academic performance.

Kenny Community School in Minneapolis, for example, saw one of the biggest increases in overall scores in the metro area while Sheridan Hills Elementary in Richfield experienced a similar gain in its score that measures how well the school is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

Still, both schools remain stuck with the respective focus and priority labels and must set aside 20 percent of their critical Title One funds for improvement plans.

Many schools already had improvement plans in place, either initiated on the local level or as a consequence of receiving additional federal money, and bristle at the idea of labels.

”We don’t need a law or label to compel us to improve student achievement,” Mohs said. “We’ve got a lot of change going on with or without these labels.”