New state ratings reveal that dozens of Minneapolis and St. Paul schools are among the lowest-performing schools in Minnesota and are failing to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Statewide, education officials identified 155 struggling schools. The ratings signal which schools are performing poorly and which are beating the odds among those that accept federal poverty money.
"This is not about labeling schools as failing; it is about recognizing what is working and what isn't, and doing whatever it takes," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said Wednesday.
The ratings further underscore the trouble many schools are having closing what has proved to be a stubborn achievement gap. State officials are also under growing pressure to fulfill a pledge to cut the gap in half by 2017.
"The clock is ticking," said Jonathan May, data and research director for Generation Next, an organization aimed at improving educational outcomes for students of color. "That's why we need everyone in our community doing their part.
The ratings are based on how well students perform on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, how much student proficiency improves on that test from year to year, the graduation rate (if the school has one) and its efforts to close the achievement gap.
Schools with poor ratings now must come up with improvement plans and set aside a portion of their federal poverty money to ensure those plans start producing results.
In St. Paul, 10 schools received the state's lowest rating possible. In 2012, the last time the state released those ratings, only two schools in the district made that list. Last year, Humboldt Secondary made enough gains to shed its poor rating.
In Minneapolis, 10 schools also received the state's lowest rating. Most of the schools got the same rating two years ago, signifying little progress despite multiple interventions by the district.
Schools seeing success
But it wasn't all bad news for Minnesota schools.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, had eight schools earn the state's highest rating. One school, Monroe Elementary, has received the top rating four years in a row.
Since the new rating system was unveiled more than two years ago, not a single Anoka-Hennepin school has earned the state's lowest rating. The district has excelled even though many of the schools serve children who are low-income or learning to speak English, which are factors often considered barriers to academic success.
"We are thrilled and honored to be recognized as a reward school again this year," Monroe principal Amy Oliver said. "Monroe has a phenomenal staff who pride themselves in maintaining high expectations for students, enabling them to progress and achieve at their highest potential."
The state's highest rating went to 131 schools. Among the metro-area districts with schools earning that rating are: Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Edina, Lakeville, Rosemount Apple Valley, Eagan, Minnetonka and Shakopee.
In Minneapolis, three schools picked up the state's highest rating: Anthony Middle School, Patrick Henry High School and Northrop Elementary. In St. Paul, one school made the list — Central High School.
One of the most remarkable school turnarounds came from Atwater Cosmos Grove City, a small, rural school district in south central Minnesota. In 2012, the school earned the state's lowest rating.
Now, the school has obtained the top rating and on Tuesday was designated a National Blue Ribbon School, one of the highest honors awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Superintendent Sherri Broderius has cited state support, offered through the department's Regional Centers of Excellence, as a key reason for the school's dramatic turnaround.
The centers consist of teams of specialists who work with teachers to improve instruction.
"It wasn't much fun in the beginning, but the hard work of our entire staff is paying off," Broderius said.
The centers are an integral part of the state's relatively new approach to helping schools that are academically lagging.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, about half of Minnesota schools were dubbed "failures." Schools that repeatedly missed the mark were required to provide students with free after-school tutoring or busing to better schools. If schools continued to earn low ratings, eventually they were required to replace principals and teachers.
That approach left some school administrators complaining that prodigious efforts to boost test scores went unrecognized if students didn't score well.
In 2012, Minnesota received a waiver to No Child Left Behind that ushered in a new school accountability system known as Multiple Measurement Ratings, which were released Wednesday.
Each school gets an MMR score, and schools that accept federal poverty aid receive one of four designations: Reward, Celebration Eligible, Priority and Focus.
The regional centers were also established. About three-fourths of the schools designated as Priority schools in 2012 that have worked closely with the centers showed progress this year, according to state education officials.
Minneapolis has own plan
Two school districts that have declined to work with the regional centers in the past are Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Officials from both districts said they were disappointed with the ratings and pledged to work harder.
Minneapolis officials say they will rely heavily on the district's newly approved academic strategic plan to get schools off the list of poorly performing schools.
Under that plan, district officials seek to boost math and reading scores by 5 percent every year for the next five years. For students of color, leaders want those standards to increase by 8 percent each year. The district is also aiming to increase its graduation rate by 10 percent each year.
The district has also added more superintendents to work directly with the schools.
"We needed associate superintendents and central office staff members spending more time coaching and assisting principals rather than attending meetings at the central office," said Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. "This change is supporting our principals to build their instructional leadership capacity and improve student achievement."
Ratings dismay St. Paul
For St. Paul school leaders, it was the sheer number of schools designated among the state's lowest achievers that gave them cause for concern.
Michelle Walker, the district's chief executive, said the rankings represent a "step back" in a process that she thinks will bring success in the long-term.
The district is eschewing the use of the state's regional content specialists in favor of using its own teams to work with principals and leaders in each school.
"It raises the urgency even more," Walker said of the new batch of ratings.
Staff Writers Alejandra Matos and Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.