Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TOP STORY >> Helping troubled districts not easy

Leader staff writer

The state Board of Education heard a mixed bag of results involving recipients of school-improvement grants at its meeting Monday.

Jacksonville High School was awarded one of those grants in June. The $2 million it received will be used to promote academic achievement through more technology and professional development for teachers.

The grant is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, awarded by the Department of Higher Education and can be renewed for two additional years if the school uses the money appropriately and exhibits positive results. The school would receive the same amount for the second year and $1.7 million for the third year, for a total of $5.7 million.

To be eligible for the grant, a school must consistently be in the lowest 5 percent of performing schools in the state and replace most of the teachers or replace the principal. A former JHS principal announced his retirement at the graduation ceremony in May and the school has welcomed Henry Anderson to the position.

The report didn’t mention the progress JHS has made with the grant because it’s too soon to tell, but it did shed light on how effective and ineffective throwing money at distressed schools can be.

J.A. Fair High School in Little Rock saw increased test scores for each end-of-course area with double-digit growth in algebra one and geometry, said Dr. Laura Bednar with the Arkansas Department of Education.

Osceola Middle School in northeast Arkansas also saw double-digit growth. Osceola High School improved in three out of the four areas, but fell 6 percent in biology.

Scores at Hall High School in Little Rock stayed about the same. The school saw 1 percent growth in end-of-course biology, but a one percent decrease in algebra and a four percent decrease in literacy. Cloverdale Middle School in Little Rock also experienced a slight drop in their scores.

North Little Rock’s Rose City Middle School saw declines in all areas at all grade levels, with the exception of a slight increase in eighth-grade math scores.

The biggest success of the grant program was Trusty Elementary School in Fort Smith, which experienced “incredible growth in math and literacy scores at all levels,” Bednar said.

The school’s gains were double-digit at every level. She attributed the school’s improvement to the commitment of the district, parents, teachers, staff and the community.

She added, “They have all come together around that school.”

Board member Vicki Saviers said, “What you (Bednar) said about the administration in Fort Smith was, I think, real important for our board to hear as we proceed to look at academic distress because you can only do so much, the department can only do so much, the U.S. Department of Education can only do so much. But at the end of the day, the community and the district has to take responsibility for these schools and, really, in some instances, that hasn’t happened for years and didn’t happen even at these schools with this focus and special attention.

If it can happen in Fort Smith it can happen in Little Rock, at Osceola. I just hope we’ll all remain focused on a way to relate the opportunity to do something about this instead of watching these chronically under-achieving schools persist.”

One of the issues Bednar emphasized was that the successful programs started at some of the schools might not be sustainable when the grant money is gone. She also said many of the schools are using the funds to hire outside consultants, but the department hopes there will be less of that this year because the grants are meant to help the schools improve and sustain improvements on their own.

She also reminded the members of the new schools, including Jacksonville, that received the grant this year. She added that a new school improvement grant site director has been hired at Jacksonville High School to spend four days a week at the school and one day a week at the department. The director, who was hired by Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell and former Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Bobby Lester, will help the school meet its grant requirements.

The board also heard the 2010-11 results and three-year performance summary for the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science (AAIMS), which Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School were accepted in to last week.

The research and data presented by Tommie Sue Anthony of AAIMS concluded that the program has dramatically increased student achievement in rigorous math and science courses, replicated a model (the advanced placement program) that has worked for all students statewide, changed the culture of expectations, made the state’s public school students globally competitive and helped close an achievement gap in math and science by increasing participation and performance of minority students in the advanced placement program.

Anthony expressed her hopes for JHS, explaining that she was a teacher there and started the school’s advanced-placement program.

“It is very important to me that Jacksonville gets back what it once had. I want to see it turnaround,” she said.

Kimbrell said, “You’re creating tomorrow’s work. Arkansas has to step up to create better opportunities for our students…They’re (schools in Taiwan) trying to build a relationship with Arkansas.

“We want this relationship because Taiwan is doing so many things with STEM (science, math, engineering and math). She (Kimbrell’s daughter) won’t be competing with kids from Pulaski County or Little Rock. She’ll be competing with 11-year-olds in Taiwan and other places,” Kimbrell said.