Mixed message? Some of state's 'worst-performing' schools making AYP

Pat King
Pat King is director of the Office of Turnaround Schools for the Minnesota Education Department. She said she's not sure how seven schools ended up being labeled among the state's worst performers, even as they are making "adequate yearly progress" under state guidelines.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Some of Minnesota's worst-performing schools found out this week their performance might not be so bad, after all.

Earlier this year, 34 schools were identified as being the state's persistently lowest performing. But seven of them just found out this week that they are making Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

How is it that those seven schools got both a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" from the state in the same year?

That's what Christianna Hang is trying to figure out. She heads Hmong College Prep Academy, a charter school with about 550 students in St. Paul.

She remembers how painful it was to learn last winter that the school she founded was one of the state's worst performers.

"We felt awful. We had to answer to our constituents, our stakeholders, our parents and students," said Hang. "Of course, our competitors out there, the traditional public schools, make us feel like, 'Gee, there you go -- failing charter school.' And we're not."

Hang learned this week that her school is making Adequate Yearly Progress, which is something she says shouldn't be happening if her school is really as bad as state officials said.

How is it that those schools got both a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" from the state in the same year?

"Something's not right," she said.

Being on the worst-performer list made schools eligible for "school improvement grants," to fund efforts to turn those school around.

But as significant as the money could be, leaders of those 34 schools say their communities were devastated at learning they were on such a list. They also had to agree to fire their principals, and in many cases reshuffle and fire other staff, to get the money -- a requirement from the federal government.

So now that seven of those schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress, just a few months after being labeled one of the state's worst performers, it raises a question: Should those people have been fired or reassigned?

"I don't know, that's a good question," said Pat King, director of the Office of Turnaround Schools for the state Education Department. "It's a requirement of the grant, so time will tell."

The seven schools in question are: Hmong College Prep in St. Paul, the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, and high schools in the towns of Isle, Orr, Greenbush, Braham and Finlayson.

King says being on both lists does seem contradictory at first, but it's important to note each list uses different sets of data and calculations.

Adequate Yearly Progress, for example, measures progress made on test scores from last year to this year. The School Improvement list of the 34 lowest performers used older test score averages and graduation rates over three years -- 2006, 2007, and 2008.

King says schools who showed up on both lists aren't contradicting the School Improvement process -- they're just ahead of the game.

"This is meant to be a systemic change to their schools, not just a one-time opportunity," said King. "Three years from now, we're going to be looking at a completely different school. So if they've already made AYP, that will only help with their implementation of their School Improvement Grant."

Some education officials were surprised that so many schools on one list could be on the other.

"It probably raises the question of what are the most appropriate indicators used to identify the schools?" said Joann Knuth, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

Knuth has testified at the state Capitol in opposition to aspects of the School Improvement process.

Mike Conner, the superindent of schools in Isle, says he understands the nuance of how his school can be both making Adequate Yearly Progress and on the worst-performer list.

But he also expects his community will struggle with this question: If Isle is making such good progress, why was the district put through months of stress from being on the bad list, and his staff spending countless hours writing an application and changing everything?

"We have started on a journey. We have made great progress," said Conner. "So all the time, energy, effort and transformation pieces we've put together should still, ultimately, improve our student scores -- and at a faster rate."

Schools on the worst-performer list who got money for their turnarounds are now working to put some of those changes in place before students return to school next month.