Affluent schools stay on top in new Minnesota rankings

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2012 - 6:22 AM

Minnesota's school accountability system was retooled to take new criteria into account, but familiar patterns stubbornly remain.

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Blake Peterson a 2nd grader at Forest Hill Elementary school in Eden Prairie listen to a classmate read during afternoon classes at the school.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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New system, old results.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Education released school rankings based on its new accountability system. But the results are generally the same as the old system: Schools with less-affluent student bodies land often at the bottom of the list, while their affluent counterparts rise to the top.

Under the new system, schools were judged on their students' scores in math and reading, plus academic growth in individual students, a strong high school graduation rate and a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates. Most educators said they like the changes. "Including growth is very significant for schools," said Don Pascoe, Osseo Public Schools' director of research, assessment and accountability.

The one-size-fits-all approach of the old system -- which Minnesota was freed from with a waiver to No Child Left Behind -- left some school administrators complaining that prodigious efforts to boost test scores went unrecognized if students didn't score as proficient.

"Rather than relying on a failed system that doled out punitive labels and didn't tell the whole story about schools, today we're recognizing our high performing schools and making a commitment to stand beside those schools most in need," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Under the old system, nearly half of all Minnesota schools were considered failing. Schools that repeatedly missed the mark were required to provide students with free after-school tutoring or busing to better schools, and eventually had to replace principals and teachers.

Now, most of Minnesota's 2,000 public schools received an overall numerical ranking, but only 255 schools -- those schools receiving federal poverty aid -- got one of three designations: Reward, the highest performers; Priority, the lowest performers; and Focus, schools that did the worst at closing the state's achievement gap, a gap considered among the worst in the nation.

Schools with one of the three designations must submit plans to show improvement, but they'll have more freedom on how to do it. Schools must begin working on those plans immediately and submit them to the state Education Department for approval by Sept. 1.

A big leap

In a dramatic turnaround, about 32 of the 128 freshly labeled Reward schools were not making sufficient progress under the old school accountability system last year.

Anoka-Hennepin was celebrating that success at three of its elementary schools, Madison, Monroe and University.

"The new designation is putting attention where we should be putting attention: Here are schools that are achieving the goals we want," said Mary Wolverton, the district's associate superintendent for elementary schools.

Two schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district also made the leap. Sally Soliday, principal at Echo Park Elementary School in Burnsville, said the school has improved by putting its focus squarely on learning.

Teachers ask, "Did they learn it, and if they didn't learn it, what am I going to do differently?" she said. "It's an assessment, a teaching and a learning loop."

A similar focus on learning, collaboration and assessment helped Deerwood Elementary in Eagan make gains, said Principal Miles Haugen.

"We know our students. We know where they're at in October, in December, in March," he said.

Other Reward schools have been making gains for years.

In Eden Prairie, Forest Hills Elementary students scored second-highest overall among the district's schools, significant because the school has the highest poverty rate among the elementary schools there. The concentration of poverty at Forest Hills was one of the driving factors that led the district in 2010 to decide to bus students between schools.

Principal Connie Hytjan said the school's success stems from a concentrated effort to focus not just on students' performance in reading and math, but also the emotional well being of students and their families. She credited the staff.

"They embraced the decision of our district to undertake a strategic planning process, even though it required them to do things differently," she said.

Minneapolis, St. Paul

In Minneapolis, the top five district schools all are in middle- to upper-class southwest Minneapolis, while four of the five lowest-ranking schools were on the North Side, joined by Sheridan in northeast Minneapolis.

The state placed Anthony Middle School and Somali-focused Heritage Science and Technology, one of its alternative schools, in the Reward category.

Two-thirds of all students and 70 percent of minority students attend poverty-aid schools that got labeled. But Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said she's glad the state waiver allows those schools to move away from harsher strategies previously required for low-performing schools.

"There's schools that are on the list [where] we're already making transforming changes," she said, citing work to improve teaching and teachers. "The data are what they are. We feel the existing strategies we have in place are working."

Of the schools receiving federal poverty aid in St. Paul, 15 were designated Focus schools, one was named a Reward school, and two were dubbed Priority.

Matthew Mohs, the district's director of federal poverty aid programs, said many of the Focus schools are already undertaking improvement plans to boost achievement of non-white students.

"But they'll need to do more," he said. "I think you can expect to see significant changes to the quality of teaching and learning programs in the buildings."

At Valley View Elementary in Bloomington, named a Focus school Tuesday, administrators will continue to work on an ambitious plan to improve the academic performance of all students, said Principal Andy Kubas.

"Life here in many ways won't look significantly different," he said. "We've got a plan that's working really well that's showing us students are having tremendous growth. And that's important."

Staff writers Glenn Howatt, Steve Brandt, Maria Baca and Bill Crum contributed to this report. Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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