Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Some schools beat odds despite big obstacles

By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service

LANSING – Despite substantial barriers to academic achievement, some public schools are finding success and exceeding expectations.

Schools in areas including Cadillac, Three Rivers, Traverse City and Ann Arbor were identified in two Department of Education studies as schools that exceed expectations despite obstacles like student economic status, lack of English proficiency or inadequate funding.

One study listed 63 schools that were “Beating the Odds” or performing above predicted levels. The second found 72 schools that were performing better than others with similar demographics.

“These are schools doing remarkable things to help their students achieve, despite the odds being stacked against them,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan said.

The “Beating the Odds” study predicted a level of performance for each school on based on standardized tests, including the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, as well as the percent of their students who are economically disadvantaged, disabled and have limited English proficiency.

Those outperforming comparable institutions were measured against 30 schools with similar locations and grade configurations. Other similarities, including percentage of economically disadvantaged or minority group students, were also taken into account.

Andrews Elementary School, in Three Rivers, is among those outperforming comparable schools.

Principal Cheryl Riley said that its staff makes the difference, especially in a district with more than 70 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged.

Riley said that her teachers are constantly improving through research into teaching practices and professional development.

Setting expectations high for all 360 students at Andrews and recognizing their achievements is also important to success, according to Riley.

And Riley said parents and the community are heavily involved in the school.

“Families and parents support us, and it’s not always easy,” Riley said. “Many of our parents face problems like having enough gas money to get to school, but they find a way.”

Joy Beth Hicks, the principal of Franklin Elementary School in Cadillac, agreed that community involvement is crucial.

Franklin, which performed better than predicted levels in the Education Department study, has a community-based mentor program with a positive effect on students.

Students, including those with behavioral problems, are matched with volunteer mentors who meet them weekly.

“We have seen less behavioral problems since the program started,” Hicks said. “Once they realize their mentor is a stable person in their life, there is a big turn-around, not only behaviorally but academically.”

Hicks said communication with parents and a high-quality team of educators are also factors in her school’s success.

However, Hicks said she’s concerned with proposed state aid cuts and how they will hurt her school.

Franklin’s junior kindergarten class may increase from 19 to 30 students if budget cuts go through as proposed.

“It’s going to make a big difference,” Hicks said, “The personal time with the teacher working one-on-one with the child is going to be depleted quickly.”

Programs that help Franklin perform at higher-than-predicted levels may be cut, like the Response to Intervention Program, Hicks said.

The program provides personalized instruction to students, especially those struggling in early education.

To implement the program “does take bodies and it does take materials, and when you cut funds they’re both going to be affected,” Hicks said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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