St. Paul's Humboldt High School landed last year on the state's dreaded "priority" list, with student performance among the bottom 5 percent in Minnesota.
But the label brought more state money to train teachers and provide extra aid for struggling students. That helped boost test scores and other measures and got Humboldt off the priority list last week, along with 26 other schools.
"It is very refreshing not to have the stigma of being a priority school," said Principal Mike Sodomka. "But we're not going to rest on our laurels. We're still going to move forward and we recognize there are areas we can move forward and improve."
State officials cite Humboldt as a success story for their Multiple Measurement Ratings system, Minnesota's alternative to the federal No Child Left Behind program. Supporters credit a system that offers more help and fewer penalties to boost struggling schools. Critics worry schools are being let off the hook before real improvement is shown.
The system gives every school in the state a percentage score based on student test scores, academic growth, graduation rates and how well schools are closing the academic gap between white students and students of color. The emphasis is on progress rather than absolute scores or graduation rates. Officials say the MMR system is a better way to rank schools.
"All of our students have done better on the MCA tests," said Sodomka. "It also means we have excelled at exceeding the achievement gap reductions. And it also means we have excelled at increasing our graduation rate."
He credits hard work by the school's staff and students, 1,200 kids in grades 6 through 12, for moving Humboldt up the rankings.
State officials say the success also came because the system required the school to work with the state to develop an improvement plan. The state also provided training for teachers. A three-year, $2.8-million federal school improvement grant Humboldt received in 2010 also let the school add an hour to each day and provided intensive intervention for struggling students.
The help from the state's Centers of Educational Excellence was also crucial, officials said.
The centers, located around the state, provide struggling schools with assistance, starting with training for principals and other school leaders. The help includes a state-approved school improvement plan that generally lays out strategies to raise student test scores and graduation rates.
Each school has unique challenges and some need more time and support to move up in the rankings, said Toni Cox, director of the state's Northern Center of Excellence in Thief River Falls. The centers can send experts to help teachers, "perhaps one of our specialists is in a classroom modeling a teaching strategy, team-teaching with a teacher or coaching a classroom teacher," Cox said.
Despite improvement there are still 25 Minnesota schools considered "priority" schools; 74 are "focus" schools — a designation that specifically targets schools with wide achievement gaps.
Some critics of the school ranking system worry the state is moving schools out of the lowest categories before they're ready.
Jim Bartholomew, educational policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, says the system puts more weight on improvement in scores than how good those scores are.
Bartholomew says schools that show improvement in scores can still have low math, science and reading proficiency rates among students of color.
"If you extrapolate where the low income students or African American or Hispanic kids are performing today and you look at the annual growth that they've been making to get off the list, it would take sometimes decades before those students would equal today's white student performance."
Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform group, says more time is needed before the state can confidently say schools are improving under the MMR system.
"When you have statistics like this that are fluctuating so far one way or the other, we've got to hold some of these numbers with a grain of salt until we see several more years of data and compare that over time."
When a school moves out of the lowest category in the ranking, support for the school doesn't end, state officials say. The state still closely monitors the school's performance, and works with teachers and school leaders, just not as intensively as before.
Sodomka hopes in coming years his school can increase student test scores and graduation rates enough to qualify for a new label — "reward" school — one of the top designations in the state's MMR system.