Karl Springer
Shannon Cornman

Two Oklahoma City Public Schools have landed on the highest-priority school improvement list: Shidler Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. An Oklahoma City charter school, Santa Fe South Middle School, originally was on the list, too, but is getting further consideration.

The process of determining which schools are in need of significant reform via a partnership with the state Department of Education is completely different than what existed in previous years. That’s because Oklahoma’s request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind standards was granted earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education.

However, several superintendents with the lowest-achieving schools take issue with how the state agency reviewed the schools’ ability to turn their performance around and what a partnership with the state education department would look like.

The process
Barresi and other state education officials explained the process April 9 at a special meeting of the state Board of Education.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind system, each school must achieve a grade based on academic performance and other factors known as an Academic Performance Index score, the maximum being 1,500. The score a school must achieve goes up as years go by, with an ultimate goal of 1,500 by 2014.

In addition, the school’s test scores are broken up into subsections, such as race, special education status and economically disadvantaged students. Each subsection must either hit the target API score for that year or under the “safe harbor” rule — if the school or subgroup is below the target API score, but made a certain percentage of improvement. Hitting the score or the percentage of required improvement is deemed as Adequate Yearly Progress, a vital distinction that keeps schools off the School Improvement list.

However, failure of any one of the school’s subgroups to make Adequate Yearly Progress can cause the entire school to fall short, thereby possibly winding up on the school improvement list.

In short, as one subgroup goes, in many cases, so goes the entire school.

‘Bottom of the barrel’
As a result of the raised bar for API scores, state Department of Education officials expected that 400 and 500 districts next year would fall short of achieving Adequate Yearly Progress.

That modest expectation fueled the agency’s request for a waiver of No Child Left Behind standards. As part of that waiver application, the state education department laid out its plans for implementing school reform.

Using data from the previous school year’s tests and other factors, the department looked at the lowest performing schools in the state.

The idea, said Kerri White, deputy state superintendent, was to identify schools in the bottom 5 percent for reading and math, schools with graduation rates below 60 percent for the last three years, and schools that had received a School Improvement Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Almost all the schools in the bottom 5 percent were elementary schools, White said, so the agency divided the schools into elementary, middle and high school categories and subsequently took the bottom 5 percent from each group.

That resulted in a list of 75 schools statewide. Those facilities were then notified by the state Department of Education and asked to perform a report on their school’s capacity to implement turnaround principles.

Each school’s response was graded by state reviewers. More than one reviewer evaluated each section and scored it on a scale of 1 to 3 in four categories:
• historical data analysis of test scores, dropout rates and other data;
• academic support;
• organizational support; and
• district expectations.

Shidler Elementary
Shannon Cornman

What emerged was an early list of seven schools determined not to have the capacity to implement turnaround principles:

• Shidler,
• Roosevelt and
• Santa Fe South in Oklahoma City;
• Keyes Elementary School,
• Caney Elementary School,
• Webster Elementary School,
• Bokoshe Middle School,
• Graham High School,
• Okay High School and
• McLain High School in Tulsa.
The schools were designated as C3 Partnership Schools or, as Farris Superintendent Wes Watson called them at the April 9 meeting, “the bottom of the barrel.”

Level of partnership
While all 75 schools on the initial list will be working with the state Department of Education to meet turnaround principles, the C3 schools would be subject to greater involvement by the state.

That had school officials worried that an agency takeover was imminent. Language in the department’s application for the No Child Left Behind waiver didn’t help quell those fears.

“When I read the waiver the first time, it caused me and many of my colleagues to raise red flags,” Karl Springer, Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent, told the state Board of Education. “We read it, we knew what was in the document and we heard what was being said. And there was a great difference between what was in the document, what was approved by the U.S. Department of Education and what was being said.”

Janet Barresi

But Barresi stressed that the state will not take over any schools, adding that the chances of the department using a private educational management organization to oversee schools are “low to none.”

“We were required to put that [takeover language] in the waiver as an option. Whether we use it is ours, and we have stated publicly multiple times it is not an option. School closure is not an option,” Barresi said.

She said the conversation about where to go for each school on the C3 list will involve the state education department, school administration and teachers and the affected community.

Tulsa McLain has already been in talks with the State Department, Barresi said, and the school could become a charter school depending on what the community wants.

But becoming a charter school is one of several options available to the C3 schools, she said, which also includes replacing the school principal and/or half the faculty, instituting particular curriculum, lengthening the school day and other options.

“Each of these [schools] will be a different plan,” Barresi said, “because each school is so different in size and in terms of leadership in the school and their capacity to improve.”

She said the C3 schools will likely also be visited at least once a week by state education department staffers.

State Board of Education members told superintendents at the April 9 meeting to look at the C3 status as an opportunity, not a punishment.

Superintendents react
However, some of the superintendents with schools on the C3 list said they had more questions than answers of how the partnership will work.

“There’s so many things about this partnership I don’t understand yet,” said Mickey Igert, superintendent of Okay Public Schools. “The fear is what scares everybody. Rural schools are much more afraid of things like this than the bigger schools.”

Others expressed skepticism because the evaluation of schools was subjective and sometimes inconsistent. In one case, for example, an evaluator gave a school the highest score on a certain section while another evaluator indicated that section could not be assessed because school officials had not provided any pertinent information.

“We’re trying to say this is going to be OK because the evaluation was consistently inconsistent,” Springer told the board. “I’ve never heard anything like that before.”

In addition, he said, there was little direction by the State Department of Education as to what they wanted in the capacity reviews.

The Board ended up removing one of the schools on the C3 list, Santa Fe South, after its superintendent, Chris Brewster, said the district did not have accurate information in its capacity report.

Barresi appeared displeased by the discrepancy.

“The same directions were given to each and every one of these schools. Some chose to respond. Some responded with angry emails to me demanding that we already have that information … and submitted this,” she said, holding up a thin folder containing Santa Fe South’s response.

Springer said the district and its C3 schools will work with the state Department of Education. He said he hopes the agency can help the district implement a long-range plan unveiled last year.

“It’s not that we’re not moving forward with a school improvement plan right now. We are,” he said. “The State Department of Education, the district, the patrons, will be forming a community advisory board which will meet and help to act as a sort of steering committee to make sure going in the right direction and working in a collaborative way.”

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