Celebrate schools that do things right

Published 9:00 am Monday, December 29, 2014

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Some of the schools receive volunteer help. Others go the extra mile to engage families and help them connect with social services. And most have teachers and administrators who collaborate and use student data to focus instruction on what students need most.

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They are 22 “celebration” schools recently named by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) for making progress on narrowing troubling learning disparities among state students.

Their success deserves recognition, support and replication. Along with top scoring “rewards” schools announced in October, celebration schools are demonstrating what it takes to improve student outcomes. They benefit from the types of programs that can help lead the way in closing the state’s persistent achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

Here’s how the ranking system was established: For about a decade, federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) rules required the state to rank schools based primarily on test scores. But in 2011, Minnesota got a waiver from NCLB rules to develop its own Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) evaluation system. Under MMR, schools are assessed in four areas — test scores, growth, progress on narrowing disparities and graduation rates.

The first year, 214 schools were at the bottom of the underperforming list; this year, the total dropped to 155. MMR rankings place state schools in five categories ranging from “reward” (the top 15 percent) to “focus” and “priority” for those most in need of improvement.

While all state schools are ranked, only those that receive federal Title I funds for lower-income students receive the status designations.

This year, 131 programs earned reward status and another 215 schools in the next 25 percent were classified as celebration eligible. Of those, 141 applied and 22 were chosen.

The FAIR school in downtown Minneapolis is one of the 22. Its reading program uses community partnerships, including 200 Target employees who volunteer as reading coaches. The school regularly involves families, has children reading consistently both in and out of school, and engages students by allowing them to read about topics that interest them.

As a result, the school’s 2014 reading results for third-graders showed no achievement gap between students of color and white students.

Recently, the West Metro Education special district that operates FAIR said it is considering transferring the school to the Minneapolis or Robbinsdale school districts. Incorporating FAIR and learning from it could help those and other districts be more effective with struggling students.

Understanding the importance of sharing and expanding effective instruction, state officials are beginning to not only recognize good work, but also to use successful programs as models. MDE reports that earlier this year, the superintendent of a school that had moved from priority to reward status in two years spoke to a group from the lowest-performing schools about overcoming challenges. And the department plans to sponsor more of those kinds of sessions.

The new school designations shift ratings away from a federal system that was widely viewed as unfair and overly punitive. The new labels address a major criticism of the way schools were judged under NCLB — namely the annual Adequate Yearly Progress reports (AYP). Under that system, schools that did not reach a specific achievement level were called failures.

MMR is more encouraging. The philosophy is that recognizing progress can provide needed incentives for schools, staff and students to do better.

The positive reinforcement is needed. Even some Minnesota schools that have had overall improvement have students of color who are 10 to 40 percentage points away from proficiency and well behind white peers, who often come from households with higher incomes.

It’s worth noting and applauding those schools that are moving in the right direction. It’s also important to learn from them and replicate the strategies that are working to boost achievement among all students.

Austin’s Southgate Elementary School and Blooming Prairie Elementary School were two of the 22 celebration schools in Minnesota.

Read more about them at www.austindailyherald.com/2014/12/austin-bp-schools-achieve-celebration-status/

To see the lists of “Reward” and “Celebration” schools, go to http://education.state.mn.us.