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Efforts to Bolster Dearborn Schools With Performance Gaps Showing Results

Bryant Middle School's principal gave a presentation on the status of the Focus Schools program.

A new designation for several Dearborn schools is yielding results, but also presents pressing questions, according to district officials.

Following the release of Adequate Yearly Progress reports last August, the Michigan Department of Education announced a new program that would identify some schools in the state as Reward, Priority or Focus schools—or the highest achieving schools, lowest achieving schools, and those with the greatest achievement gap, respectively. Achievement is based on both MEAP and Michigan Merit Exam scores.

Though Dearborn had no Priority Schools and several Reward Schools named by the MDE, they did also have a handful of Focus Schools. .

At a presentation before the Dearborn Board of Education in February, the district outlined its progress in the Focus Schools, as well as discussed some challenges with implementing the program.

District has met goals, but not without issues

DuVall Elementary, Haigh Elementary, Lowrey Middle School, Bryant Middle School, Fordson High and Edsel Ford High were all given the Focus School designation last August. They’re among the state’s 10 percent of schools with the widest achievement gaps, meaning the academic disparity between the top 30 percent of students and the bottom 30 percent.

Having Focus Schools meant certain added responsibilities for the district and the individual schools named, Superintendent Brian Whiston explained to the Board of Education.

That includes working with a state-approved facilitator from Michigan State University, implementing the superintendent’s drop-out challenge, financial set-asides from Title I funding at both the district and school level, as well as allowing students to switch from a Focus School receiving Title I funding to another designated school.

The last of those requirements meant that the district sent out letters to families of Focus School students informing them of their right to switch schools. Though there was no interest in lower grade levels, the district received more than 100 applications from Fordson and Edsel Ford students looking to transfer to Dearborn High—a non-Focus School. Around 25 students were allowed to transfer from each school, based on available vacancies.

Associate Superintendent Gail Shenkman explained that the district hoped to see that particular guideline changed.

“There really doesn’t seem to be any research to support that (changing schools) is benefitting the students,” she said.

Also posing a problem is the fact that as some students continue to achieve at higher levels, it’s possible that the achievement gap could remain.

“In my mind, this whole issue of Focus Schools is inherent in the system,” commented Board President Pamela Adams. “You’re always going to have a group of students at the top and at the bottom.”

Shannon Peterson, who is principal of Focus School-designated Bryant Middle School, said that has been a concern.

“What you don’t want to see is us bring the top down,” she said. “We want to accelerate the bottom, but we still want to challenge the top.”

Bryant School snapshot: “This is not a small challenge.”

Focus Schools are designated as such for a four-year period—essentially, that’s the time they have to bring their bottom scores up. Less than one year in, Dearborn schools have seen progress.

In many cases, as with Bryant, the designation was given to a school with some very high-achieving students. The challenge, Peterson explained to the Board of Education, is continuing to challenge the top students while bringing up lower scores.

“I’ve asked (teachers) to identify the things they do to challenge those students, because we certainly don’t want them to stop doing that,” Peterson explained. “And for the bottom 30 percent, I’ve asked them to take a look at individually, what are they doing for each child whose struggling in their classroom to make sure they’re successful.”

“This is not a small challenge,” she added.

Peterson said that putting a “razor focus” on lower-performing students has helped to identify their individual needs. And setting aside the mandatory 10 percent of the school’s Title I funding for this goal, she added, has allowed her staff to become better trained on how to identify and help at-risk students.

The benefits are apparent in the MEAP scores of Bryant’s bottom 30 percent of students:

  • 79 percent of the eighth graders on that list have improved their reading scores
  • 55 percent of seventh graders improved their reading scores
  • 27 percent of eighth graders improved their math scores
  • 67 percent of seventh graders improved their math scores

Assistant Superintendent Jill Chocol reiterated that the efforts seem to be paying off as the district grapples with this new challenge.

“We’re working diligently with staff of focus schools to bring up the achievement of the lowest 30 percent of the students,” she said.

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