Minnesota schools: Financial aid not consistent with needs

/ 27 May 2012 / jennifer

Megan Boldt and MaryJo Webster, Pioneer Press, May 27, 2012 –

Under Minnesota’s new accountability system, only 42 schools have been identified as “Priority,” or needing special attention. But a Pioneer Press analysis of the data shows at least 71 other schools had similarly low scores but won’t get that label — or help from the state to improve.

Most, but not all, of those other schools don’t receive federal funding to educate higher concentrations of low-income children and thus aren’t eligible for extra help. But many of them, mainly in suburban and rural Minnesota, have seen huge increases of students living in poverty.

“You can change the way we calculate test score data to measure school performance. But it doesn’t address the underlying issue: poverty is still the main factor affecting student achievement,” said Duane Berkas, director of teaching and learning for the Columbia Heights school district. “And we as a community, and we as school districts in those communities, need to figure out how we are going to support kids living in poverty and help them succeed.”

Sam Kramer, federal education policy specialist for the state Education Department, said the new accountability system is to comply with federal law. That means state education officials can intervene only at schools that receive federal money. When stakeholders were discussing setting up a new system, some were interested in creating a state system that mirrors the federal one so they could intervene at all low-performing schools.

“The desire is there,” Kramer said. “But it’s a big investment to do that.”

NO CONSEQUENCES, NO MONEY

The goal of the new system — Multiple Measurement Rating — is to give the public a better idea how schools are doing.

Since 2003, Minnesota has released an annual “watch list” of schools at which students were failing to make adequate progress in math and reading, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Minnesota was one of 26 states recently freed from those requirements, allowing implementation of its new accountability system. Proficiency still counts, but so do improvement in individuals’ test scores and narrowing a school’s achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. High schools also are judged on their graduation rates.

Seems simple, right? Well, not exactly.

Take Central Middle School in Columbia Heights. The school has seen its low-income student population almost double in the past decade, with about three-quarters of kids now qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. For the past five years, the school’s students haven’t made adequate yearly progress toward math and reading goals. And under the new system, Central got only a 7.2 rating, one of the lowest ratings in the state.

But the school doesn’t receive federal Title I funds. So that means no “Priority” label, no consequences and no federal money for improvements.

In two nearby districts, similar schools did significantly better in the new ratings system but will be on the list of Priority schools for at least three years. Brooklyn Center Secondary School got a 44.3 rating, and NorthView IB World School got a 28.7 rating.

The two were among 19 identified as significantly underperforming on recent watch lists. With that label came $1 million in federal funds over three years to turn the schools around.

The overall proficiency rates in Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Center are about the same. But Brooklyn Center has seen overall scores grow, with reading scores almost doubling over the past five years not just for white children but also for black and Hispanic students. Scores at Central in Columbia Heights mostly have dropped.

Brooklyn Center has undergone some massive changes. Just under half of the district’s 1,100 elementary students attend daily after-school sessions in which teachers work with them on math and reading. The district also opened a health center in 2010, which provides free or low-cost medical, mental health and dental services. The center had 3,000 appointments in the first year.

And this fall, the district is opening a teen-parent child center. The district is paying the lease and partnering with 19 organizations to provide services.

The $1 million in federal funds is being used to improve teaching. Teachers are being trained to tailor their instruction to children’s abilities, and they meet in professional learning communities three times a week to collaborate.

“There’s a lot more professional discussion and improvement going on,” said Superintendent Keith Lester. “And it’s being led by the teachers. And that’s been more effective.”

NOT THE WHOLE STORY

Columbia Heights isn’t making excuses. But Berkas said the changing demographics have been a challenge and finding ways to help struggling students has involved a lot of trial and error.

The main problem, he said, is not poverty but the mobility that comes with it. Every year, about a third of students are new to the district. Many of them are grade levels behind.

A seventh-grader might come to the district with the math and reading skills of a fourth-grader. Then teachers and administrators need to decide whether they teach that student the seventh-grade standards, supporting him the best they can, or start at the student’s level, knowing he won’t pass the seventh-grade test.

“It’s a dilemma,” Berkas said. “You’re setting yourself up that year for a testing disappointment.”

Next school year, Central Middle School will be a Title I school and get the money that comes along with it. But that doesn’t mean the Columbia Heights district will get more money. The district already gets Title I money for its three elementary schools and will now have to divide that four ways.

Regardless, it will continue doing what seems to be working to help struggling students. And that’s giving them more math and reading instruction during the school day, intensifying the use of technology in classrooms to keep students engaged and motivated and trying to keep class sizes smaller so they can better customize instruction.

“We feel like we’re igniting that passion and doing great things,” Berkas said. “But sometimes I think that gets lost in this discussion.”

Brooklyn Center’s Lester said every school has students who are succeeding. Beyond test scores and graduation rates, schools should be judged on other aspects like attendance and student behavior, he said. That’s why two of his granddaughters will be at Brooklyn Center Secondary next school year.

“It’s not to say not to look at those scores. They are part of it. But you have to dig a little deeper,” Lester said. “I would challenge anyone to come in and say that it’s any different than any other school. That’s why my grandkids are here. And I never hesitated when I told my daughter to send them to Brooklyn Center.”

Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495. Follow her at twitter.com/meganboldt. MaryJo Webster can be reached at 651-228-5507. Follow her at twitter.com/mndatamine.

http://www.twincities.com/education/ci_20724964/cash-aid-schools-not-consistent-needs