Income used to rank local schools

ESCANABA – While the effects of the Great Recession on education are still evident across the nation, Michigan schools were recently recognized for their efforts to meet the needs of lower income students in a ranking by Bridge Magazine.

According to a Bridge Magazine’s third annual Academic State Champs report, which ranks schools based on test scores and the income levels of families, five of the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD’s eight school districts were included in the ranking of 540 districts in the state. Those districts were Escanaba, Gladstone, Bark River-Harris, Rapid River, and Manistique.

Academic Champs Scores were assigned to each district with 100 signifying that a district is achieving the expected levels for the income levels of students. While only the top 54 districts, the top 10 percent of districts, were named 2013 Academic State Champs, all of the districts evaluated were given ranks for fourth grade, eighth grade, and 11th grade achievement as well as an overall state ranking.

Of the DSISD schools, Escanaba ranked the highest with a state ranking of 221. Based off of the Academic Champs Score given by the magazine, Escanaba students are achieving at slightly better than expected levels for their academic level with a score of 101.4.

“Our staff and school improvement teams are very data-driven,” said Escanaba Area Schools Superintendent Michele Lemire. “No matter whether a student falls into a low-income bracket or not, our focus is to see who is learning, and if students are not learning, we use a strategic process to find out why.”

Other schools in the ISD faired poorer with scores below 100. Rapid River received a score of 97.57 and a state ranking of 363, Bark-River Harris received 96.4 with a ranking of 415, Manistique received 95.89 with a ranking or 423, and Gladstone received 94.75 with a ranking of 447.

“The raw test score seems to matter much less than the free and reduced lunch percentage,” said Gladstone and Rapid River joint Superintendent Jay Kulbertis, adding that the number of students on free and reduced lunches in Rapid River is higher than in Gladstone, but that Gladstone has the highest test scores in the ISD.

Despite questions over the formula used in the ranking, there is little question that socioeconomic status has an effect on the educational success of students.

According to a recent KIDS COUNT data snapshot released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 81 percent of Michigan’s lower income fourth graders – those who are eligible for free or reduced lunches – are reading below proficient levels. In contrast, 56 percent of higher income fourth grade students in Michigan are reading below proficient levels.

Research by the foundation also indicates that students who are not reading at grade level by the third grade are less likely to graduate from high school.

In a report released by the foundation in 2013, on the national level 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty for at least a year fail to graduate compared to 6 percent of students with no family poverty experience. When students from poor backgrounds cannot read at a proficient level the rate of failure to graduate jumps to 26 percent.

In an effort to combat this trend in Michigan, two House bills were introduced in November that would prevent students from enrolling in the fourth grade if they were not reading at a proficient level according to the grade three state assessment. If the proposal had been implemented statewide in 2012, 35 percent of Michigan’s third graders in would have been held back – more than 39,000 students statewide.

“I am not in favor of holding a third grade student back for not being able to read at benchmark level,” said Lemire. “Students are so much more than a test. This ‘black and white’ approach does not address the reasons for a student’s performance and could be much more detrimental for a child. It does not take into consideration if that same student excels in math, social studies, and science.”

Lemire added that passing legislation to hold back students would cost the state more than $7,000 per year per child held back. She believes that interventions for students would be a better use of funding than retaining students.

“We’ve basically asked that they mandate interventions that would address the reading issues rather than mandating that they hold someone back,” said Kulbertis of the so-called “read or flunk” proposal still under consideration.

Gov. Rick Snyder, has suggested an emphasis on year-round education to help combat the problem of students – including those from lower-income families – retaining information during the summer months.

“Another topic is the whole concept of what happens to young people, particularly lower-income or in distressed or in lower-performing schools, because of summer vacation,” said the governor during the State of the State address given on Jan 16.

While there is little push for year-round education locally, Gladstone and Rapid River schools have established programs where students who are at risk of falling behind can continue to receive instruction after the school year has ended or before it begins. Students are recommended for the programs based on assessments given at the beginning, middle, and end of the year to determine when the so-called “brain drain” is occurring.

“Especially in Gladstone, the extended at the end and jump-start at the beginning has made the most sense for us so we’re looking to expand those in both districts,” said Kulbertis.