Not all bad
The number of Iowa schools that failed to meet federal achievement standards grew this year.
Both Storm Lake High School and Storm Lake Middle School have been added to that list. For the high school, it is the first year on the list of schools in need of assistance. For the middle school, it is the second year.
The state on Tuesday identified 94 public schools in 14 districts that failed to meet the standards, up from 66 schools and nine districts last year. Much of the list is made up of the more urban districts to the state. Storm Lake was the only area district on the list.
The increase was caused, in part, by tougher standards set by the state under No Child Left Behind, the three-year-old federal accountability program.
"The targets got tougher," said Tom Deeter, assessment consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. "2005 was that first big step; they had to have more kids proficient in their groups."
Under No Child Left Behind, all students must reach minimum academic standards in reading, math and science by 2014.
Storm Lake education officials are not surprised to be on the list. The middle school had been listed previously, and those students are now starting to arrive at the high school.
The trouble, according to High School Principal Mike Hanna, is a student turnover rate of 30 percent each year, partly due to unstable immigration patterns in the community.
"We see 100 to 150 students out of our 600 total who are in and out of our school and in a lot of cases back in. That still haunts us."
"Most have been pulled in and out of schools, in some cases in and out of the country. It is a very educationally disruptive background for those students," Hanna said.
Under No Child Left Behind, the junior class at the high school was examined. This year, there happen to be enough students in certain low income and ethnic subgroups as defined by the program to have their scores reported separately.
"Quite frankly, that's where No Child Left Behind came from - that achievement gap that was being seen in urban districts among the socio-economic groups. We're no different," Hanna said.
Many Storm Lake students come in from districts in Texas or California, and may lag behind their peers that have come up in the Storm Lake schools. "If that student has been in Storm Lake schools for any length of time, they come to the high school with better skills. But it takes seven years to get a student to the level of using academic English successfully, and if a child comes to us as a freshman with little skill in English, we don't have seven years to work with," the principal said.
The school has put in place a AAA English class meant to accelerate English learning with double the language teaching. It has offered sections of general math to help bring students who need extra help up to speed, as well as efforts to improve vocabulary and problem-solving skills.
At the middle school, a program is underway called "Every Student Counts." At the high school, a similar program called "Making Math Meaningful" is now in use.
Hanna hopes the community will not see Storm Lake on the challenged list as all bad news.
"The good part of No Child Left Behind is that yes, we may have some problems, but we are being asked what we are going to do about it. You aren't going to complain about the situation, you are going to do something."
That process starts today. With a grant in place for comprehensive school reform, a group of experts from a variety of successful schools will be coming in to examine what is happening in the SLHS classrooms. A program based in Atlanta, Georgia will help create a team that will provide technical assistance and ultimately lead to the writing of a new set of goals for the school in October. "We're very excited about this," Hanna said.
Being on the list requires the high school to have a plan to correct the situation. If the school were to continue to be listed in future years, it would be required to inform parents that they have a right to transfer students into other schools.
"Will we get it all accomplished in one year? I doubt it," Hanna said.
Still, the school has much success that is not recognized in the No Child Left Behind standards. More students take dual high school-college courses than other districts in the state, a new charter school program is underway as one of the first of its kind, the school's fine arts programs are recognized as among Iowa's best, more students are taking ACT tests in anticipation of college than ever before and scoring above the state averages.
"We offer tremendous opportunity, and we are still gaining students because of that opportunity. We know that we still have work to do with certain subgroups, but this is a situation that is certainly not all negative," Hanna said.
At Storm Lake Middle School, student transiency is also high.
"It is not uncommon for us to have 120 drops and adds in a school year. We started the year with 55 new children for this fall, and some have already dropped," said Principal Ron Bryan.
After being placed on the list last year, the school wrote and implemented a new plan, with visits and assistance from the Iowa Department of Education. "The department was actually very complimentary, and said we were right on track with reading and math," Bryan said. "It will happen, but it won't happen overnight."
Actually, scores in 8th grade math rose above the trouble list status last school year, and reading scores rose, but not enough to be above the standard yet. The school needs scores above standards for two consecutive years to escape the list.
"The Department of Education understands that we are improving, and that when we get a student with no English skills coming in, they are not going to become proficient in a single year, as those standards expect," Bryan said.
The middle school will soon be sending letters to all parents, explaining what it means to be on the schools in need of assistance list.
"There are also some good things coming out of this," Bryan adds. "Because we were listed last year, we received some dollars we were able to invest in staff development and materials."
Local education officials have noted that test scores as used by No Child Left Behind do not take into account the percentage of students coming to the district with limited initial English skills. Instead of tracking a student's progress through the grades, the standards compare the same grade's performance one year to another - one set of students compared to a completely different set.
Schools that fail to meet test score goals for two consecutive years are placed on the list of schools in need of assistance. Districts can be placed on the list if they fail to meet attendance or graduation rates for two straight years.
Schools that fail to meet goals for one year are placed on a separate "watch list", which will be released next month.
Failing to reach the standards can affect federal Title I funding, which helps districts with a high percentage of poor students.
Patricia Schroeder, the Des Moines schools' chief financial officer, said the Des Moines district could lose $6.4 million in Title I money, enough to pay the salaries of 90 teachers.
Some districts say the lists don't represent work they are doing.
For example, Clinton school officials said they have worked for 10 years to cut the number of high school dropouts from more than 100 to 52 in 2004. Despite those efforts, the district's graduation rate is 78 percent, much below the state goal of 90 percent.
"I think it's easy to get overly wrapped up in what the data says, and that doesn't necessarily reflect if progress is being made," said Clinton Superintendent Randall Clegg.
Among the 12 Title I schools sanctioned, nine must offer students the choice to attend a different school. They are Cedar Rapids' Wilson, Harrison and Johnson elementary schools; Davenport's Buchanan Elementary; Des Moines' Edmunds, Moulton and Wallace elementary schools; Sioux City's Hunt Elementary; and Waterloo's McKinstry Elementary.
The other three schools - including Storm Lake Middle School - are on the list for a second year and must also offer students supplemental services such as tutoring, education officials said.
The number of schools on the list is expected to grow with the continued rise in expectations, officials said.
Pam Pfitzenmaier, an Iowa Department of Education administrator, said the law makes schools pay closer attention to how groups of students are doing.
"To the extent that No Child Left Behind has encouraged us to look at subpopulations ... I think that's been a benefit," she said. "It's really caused us to dig down and take corrective action."