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Poorly rated local school districts continue to need improvement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2011 - Missouri education officials say new measures of the state's school districts show fairly stable results, but the St. Louis area districts that have scored poorly in the past continue to lag behind.

According to preliminary data released Friday for the state's annual performance reports, the only two districts in Missouri that are unaccredited -- St. Louis and Riverview Gardens -- failed to meet any of the standards for scores on either the state's MAP tests or the end-or-course exams in English or math.

Of the area's two districts with provisional accreditation -- Normandy and Jennings -- Normandy also failed to meet any of the standards; in Jennings, the only MAP standard met was for elementary school math.

In releasing the data, state education officials emphasized as they have in the past that the annual performance report, or APR, is the best measure for the public to use to judge how well any particular school district is performing. The data used to compile the reports are preliminary; school districts have until Sept. 2 to submit corrections and appeals, with the final results due in mid-September. (Click here for Missouri's comprehensive data system, a data portal.)

The APRs use a variety of measures of a district's performance, including several years' worth of academic achievement data and categories such as attendance, graduation rates, career education courses and placement, advanced courses and college placement. Districts that go from kindergarten through 12th grade are judged in 14 categories in all.

K-12 districts need to meet at least nine of the 14 standards to earn accreditation. Those meeting 6-8 standards are provisionally accredited; anything less than six means unaccredited. But the numbers themselves can't change a district's accreditation; that has to be decided by the state Board of Education, which reviews a district's status periodically.

Of the state's 522 districts, 510 are accredited, while 10 are provisionally accredited and two are unaccredited. Both of those, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, have been taken over by the state and are being run by special appointed administrative boards.

"We believe that the Missouri Annual Performance Report is a much better reflection of a school district's performance than the federal AYP," or Annual Yearly Progress, said Margie Vandeven, the state's assistant commissioner for quality schools.

Vandeven said the state uses the APR data to help determine when a district is struggling, so it can intervene as needed. "When we have a district that is struggling," she told reporters on a statewide conference call, "we spend much more time working with that district."

Vandeven said the relatively low scores of St. Louis, Riverview Gardens, Normandy and Jennings mean they continue to be a priority for state education officials, but she would not comment on their accreditation status because the data are still preliminary.

On the fact that many of the state's charter schools scored poorly in the latest data, Vandeven said in an email:

"Although several of the low-performing charter schools did show minimal gains in preliminary student performance data, the department continues to have concerns about the level of academic performance in some of these schools.

"The State Board of Education recently discussed a proposed rule to hold sponsors accountable for ensuring academic performance as the key criteria for renewal of charter schools."

Comparing this year's results to last year's, Vandeven said the results were pretty stable, in terms of individual standards and the number of districts meeting them.

Asked how the public can best use the data to understand how well a particular district is performing, Vandeven said it's helpful to look at the number of standards that have been met. But it's also instructive to go beyond one year of data to supporting information available online.

"That is really important," she said, "because that will show a trend, and the performance over the past five years. If we can get the public accustomed to looking at the supporting data, that will give them a much better picture."

The K-12 district with the dubious distinction of meeting the fewest standards is Calhoun, near Kansas City, with a score of two. Kansas City, which is provisionally accredited, had a score of three, along with Riverview Gardens, while Normandy and St. Louis had scores of four each in the preliminary data. When the final scores were released in mid-September, St. Louis had met six standards: advanced courses, career education courses, college placement, career education placement, graduation rate and bonus MAP achievement.

Dozens of districts in the state have scored a perfect 14 out of 14.

Districts React

Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said he hopes his district's scores will improve once final data are submitted to the state.

Still, Adams said, "There is progress based on the achievement that has occurred."

In terms of value-added -- how well students do at the end of a certain period compared with where they started -- Adams said that "all indicators are moving in the right direction. We are not moving back."

Is he satisfied with the APR numbers?

"I'm not satisfied until we get 14 out of 14," Adams said. "Everyone is striving for that. We're not jumping up and down for joy because we have some goals that have not been met yet."

Clarence Holman, superintendent of the provisionally accredited Jennings schools, expressed similar sentiments. His district scored six out of 14, the same as in 2010.

"We understand that the stakes are very high for our district this academic year," he said. "We are confident we will reach full accreditation in the near future. We have shown growth across the district in all of our schools, and that is a positive indicator that we are moving in the right direction."

He said he had anticipated that Jennings might reach seven or even eight out of 14, and he thinks that another run through the data may help it achieve that goal.

"We are continuing to focus on academic achievement, with our teams focusing on the data, on professional development and curriculum," Holman said. "I'm not disappointed. I am encouraged based on the improvement and growth we are seeing. We're not where we want to be, but we are showing growth."

A statement emailed from Sherri Sampson, executive director of assessment in the Riverview Gardens School District, said:

"Our status is measured by the district's level of achievement based upon a five year average of performance data. The APR snapshot is not a complete picture of how the district performed during the 2010-2011 school year. In comparison to the previous academic year,  we more than tripled the number of students tested at the High School to adhere to State and Federal Guidelines.  We expect to see more progress in the upcoming school years.

"All academic decisions are being data driven and we are making specific adjustments to increase student achievement. Ideally we would like to be provisionally accredited next year."

Responding to the APR report for Normandy schools, Superintendent Stanton Lawrence said Friday:

"We were more disappointed than surprised. We understand the complexities of the work involved in improving an urban school district facing the challenges that our district does.  Also, we accurately anticipated that some of the changes taking place in our school district would temporarily stall our progress."

In his email message, Lawrence said he had expected Normandy to meet six of the standards this year, not the four that the state said it did.

Asked about the effect on APR of Normandy's absorbing the Wellston schools this past year, Lawrence replied:

"To claim that the absorption of the former Wellston School District adversely impacted or slowed our growth this year would be too easy of an excuse for us to grab onto.  We have made the point that the performance of that group of young people was actually not very different than the performance of our own.

"In fact, our 2010-11 valedictorian was a Wellston student, Mr. Tyrice Jenkins, and we are quite proud of that."

Is there a timetable by which Normandy expects to reach accreditation?

"We still believe that full accreditation is no more than three years away for NSD," Lawrence said.  "We base that upon the extensive staffing and programmatic changes that have taken place over the past year and that continue into the current year.

"Three years ago, the district lacked a formal curriculum as well as systems to strategically track academic progress during the school year.  Now, there is a respected DESE-approved curriculum in place as well as plans that leave very little to chance across all areas of the school district.  We also understand that massive change (even if it is good change) does not lead to immediate improvement in the outcomes we measure."

Preliminary APR

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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