By Andrew Cluley
AAPS District News
How can a school be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School for excellence while at the same time find itself on Michigan’s Focus Schools list? Ann Arbor Public Schools’ King Elementary was in this very unusual position, but has now been removed from the focus school list. In fact, all 27 Ann Arbor schools placed on the list in 2012 have been released from the designation.
School Board President Deb Mexicotte says objections to the way the program works has kept the Board’s celebration of schools coming off the list muted. “It is Difficult to talk about focus schools without acknowledging that many of our schools were placed on that list initially when they were outscoring, by sometimes 20 and 30 percentage points, other schools in the state who were then sometimes not on that list or were even put as rewards schools because they didn’t have the distance between their top 30 percent and their bottom 30 percent,” Mexicotte says.
The Focus School program has been controversial from the beginning because of how the list was created. “By almost every measure including the top to bottom list, Ann Arbor was achieving especially for our underrepresented minority students, especially for those who are socio-economically challenged that was being recognized by state and national organizations and state and national governments,” Mexicotte explains.
Mexicotte wants to acknowledge all of the work that administration, staff, parents and students put in to raising student achievement in all of these schools that are now taken from the Focus Schools list. But she questions how much of a role the Focus Schools list played in the work. “Looking forward we are so proud of the improvements that we’ve made in student achievement, but I’m not sure how much of it we can put to the focus school designation and how much of it would have occurred anyway considering the dedication and work that our staff already had in place around our student achievement goals,” Mexicotte says.
Unfortunately two schools appear to be stuck with the Focus School designation until at least 2017, no matter how effective they are at boosting student achievement. That’s because with the state’s change from using the MEAP to MSTEP for achievement testing Scarlett Middle School and Skyline High School won’t be able to demonstrate two consecutive years of improvements on the same test for another two years.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot says the designation limits the district’s discretion with how to use some Title One funds. “We have to spend on professional development, even if the funds might be better used in other ways,” Lightfoot says. “The state is failing us all around, yet they are charging forward.”
The Focus Schools designation also requires the district send letters to families informing them of other potential schools in the area, even though the school they are currently attending may have higher overall scores and higher scores for all sub-groups of students as well.
Superintendent Jeanice Swift says the district continues to push to lose the Focus School designations for the schools that are currently on the list. “We will continue to focus efforts on raising achievement levels for all of our students,” Swift says.