By Kyle Francis
When asked how Albion High School’s (AHS) standardized test scores slipped below state standards, Willie Lewis, director of achievement and accountability, knew exactly where to identify the root of the problem.
“It all boils down to leadership,” Lewis said.
At the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) started assessing each school’s academic achievement on the basis of their accumulative MEAP and Michigan Merit Exam scores. This assessment was carried out through the 2009-10 school year.
“When the state mandated the new expectations, our leadership didn’t look at them as a necessary evil,” Lewis said. “They didn’t understand that we needed to really retool what we were doing in the classroom.”
On Aug. 15, 2010, the MDE released a list of 92 “Persistently Low Achieving Schools,” one of which was AHS, and AHS was also listed in the bottom 5 percent of public schools in the state. Albion, along with the other 91 schools, will now have to submit a redesign plan to the state by Nov. 16.
The economic situation of the school has also caused issues for the district. Decreasing student enrollment—school district receives a designated dollar amount from the state for every enrolled student—and low test scores have decreased federal and state funding provided to the school.
“(We need) better communication between the teachers and students—teachers need to more aware of student’s needs in the classroom,” said Darius Crum, AHS senior, aged 17.
Though no exact dollar amount is available for how much the funding has decreased, Lewis said that the district has lost close to a hundred students annually for the past 10 years. This year, the student count has dropped by 89 students. Because of the decreased funding, AHS has had to privatize many common necessities, such as bussing and janitorial services, because they are unable to provide pay for full-time employment.
Albion is also unable to pay for the services of a librarian. Students are able to access the library with teacher supervision, but the school is currently unable to provide a system to organize and reference its books without a librarian.
“(Not having a librarian) is huge—and we recognize that,” Lewis said. “Because of budget cuts and because we’ve lost students, we don’t have enough funding—we have to cut somewhere.”
Submitting a redesign plan to the MDE does present an opportunity for AHS to obtain additional funding from the state. There are set guidelines, however, that the school must submit to in order to receive financial aid.
Congress recently allocated $32 million to Michigan to improve struggling schools through what the state refers to as school improvement grants. In order to be eligible for a grant, AHS must chose to meet the terms of one of the state’s four intervention models. Out of the four, Albion chose to comply with a “Transformation Intervention Model.”
Derrick Crum, AHS principal, was given flexibility with one of the model’s requirements, which stated that the school must replace the current principal. Crum assumed his duties with six weeks left in the 2010 spring semester and will not be replaced because he was not principal for the entire 2009-10 school year at AHS.
“I’m happy (the school board) was willing to give me a chance,” Crum said at a community meeting.
Crum and Lewis both stated that AHS has already implemented policies effective at the beginning of the school year to improve the school’s academic position. Their main focus was on changing the way student’s grades are assessed.
“There was a sense of grade inflation with students who have a high GPA and a low ACT score,” Lewis said. “We started to ask ourselves ‘are we measuring what we would really need to measure?’”
Due to these discrepancies, AHS students are no longer graded on homework, and a majority of their grade for each class is based on “weekly assessments”, or tests, of the course material. These assessments help teachers to identify which students need more help with coursework, so they can be referred to tutorial programs for one-on-one help.
“We haven’t had the type of early intervention that we should have,” Crum said. “That’s one of the things I’m working on—trying to make sure our kids are getting identified early when they’re struggling.”
Over 50 Albion College students currently operate within tutorial programs at AHS. The school has set its sights on improving students’ comprehension skills in math, science and literature, since they are the subjects most commonly covered in standardized testing. Lewis said students who fail their weekly assessments are pulled out of elective courses and lunch periods to practice their coursework with tutors.
“The teachers don’t have the time to help the way the college students can—they’re busy doing their job and teaching classes,” said Kevin Seiwert, Portage sophomore and AHS tutor. “(AHS students) wouldn’t have as much one on one help, and as much individual attention without the college.”
To come up with a comprehensive plan to enact the guidelines, AHS has assembled a school improvement committee, composed of community leaders and school staff members. They are in the process of searching for students to serve on the committee.
The school improvement committee also turned to the community for advice on how to improve academic success at the school. On Sept. 30, Oct. 7 and Oct. 14, the school held community meetings in the high school cafeteria asking for input on what to include in the Nov. 16 report to the MDE, which they are in charge of composing.
Guidelines of the intervention model require the school to devise a plan to increase teacher/student leader effectiveness, as well evaluating staff with more rigorous and transparent standards. The purpose of the model, originally devised by the U.S. Department of Education, is to implement comprehensive instructional reform strategies to ensure student growth. It also revolves around the idea that leadership on all levels from the students, faculty and staff is critical to reforming the school as a whole.
“Some of what we’re seeing now is the byproduct of our leadership not being proactive about changes,” Lewis said. “We now have our eye on the prize by seeing what’s on the horizon.”