State assigns low grade to high poverty school that achieves remarkable academic growth
At East Garner Elementary School, Principal Kimberly Burton asked her teachers what they really needed to help their students succeed.
In the face of so many challenges and obstacles – designing new curricula aligned with Common Core, teaching a large population of English language learners and grappling with the reality that 75 percent of their students qualify for free or reduced price lunch—Burton’s teachers wanted a protected, regular time slot to come together, look at data and figure out which of their teaching methods worked and which ones didn’t so they could bring their students along on a path toward success.
So Burton decided she would cobble together her resources to give her teachers the gift of time.
Right after the switch to the Common Core State Standards, teachers began coming together for a half day on a quarterly basis. Calling them “data review days,” teachers would look at how their students were performing on various tests in different subject areas, and then they would share with one another the best practices that were producing positive academic achievement.
With the data days, said fifth grade teacher Michael Malinowski, “we can see not only [students’] deficiencies, but also their strengths.”
Burton and Malinowski both agreed that this collaborative approach – which doesn’t happen at every school — to examining data and capitalizing on what works has brought their school’s students very far in terms of academic achievement. East Garner Elementary has exceeded academic growth expectations set by the state by a considerable margin, outpacing many of their peers.
But in spite of their progress, East Garner received a low C by the state of North Carolina last week, when A-F letter grades were handed out to every school in an effort to show parents, students and community members just how good —or bad— a job schools are doing at educating children.
“That’s not who we are,” said Burton about the school’s letter grade.
High poverty and low grades go hand in hand
Last Thursday, the North Carolina General Assembly joined at least 15 other than states in adopting A-F school letter grades — a system of accountability that former governor of Florida Jeb Bush conceived more than 15 years ago.
Almost thirty percent of North Carolina’s schools received letter grades of D or F – and nearly all of those schools are designated as high poverty schools with at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch. 
In North Carolina, the formula for A-F school grades works like this: 80 percent of a letter grade reflects student achievement on standardized tests on one given day, and 20 percent reflects students’ progress on those tests over time.
Proponents of the school grades say they provide the public with a better understanding of how well schools are educating students. But critics say the measure is too simple–it fails to sufficiently account for the academic growth that good schools help students achieve and does not take into consideration the challenges that schools serving a high number of poor students face.
The fact that North Carolina’s school grades are closely aligned with poverty rates comes as no surprise to education writer Ted Fiske and his wife, education scholar Helen Ladd.
“The fact that, on average, students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school than peers from more advantaged backgrounds has been documented at all levels of education,” said Fiske and Ladd .
Fiske and Ladd argue that North Carolina’s letter grades fail to account for the impact that poverty has on academic achievement, and that wrap-around services, like summer enrichment programs and health clinics, are critical to seeing broad-scale improvement in students’ learning gains.
At East Garner Elementary, Burton says that factors that teachers cannot control during the school day really have an impact on where students are starting from with regard to academic proficiency.
“As is typical with high needs schools, many of our families do not have books in the home. And about 23 percent of our kindergarteners that come to school are not yet ready to learn,” said Burton, who noted that it’s common for teachers to encounter the reality that students have not been read to and many are coming from homes where English is not spoken.
Fifth grade teacher Mr. Malinowski explained, “we work extra hard at bringing our students up from where we get them from.”
In addition to those quarterly data days when teachers come together for a half day to examine data and figure out what teaching methods work and what don’t, teachers also come together monthly, also for a half day, to lesson plan together.
Principal Burton says she scrapes together Title I federal funds to pay for substitute teachers so she can provide her regular teachers with the time necessary to collaborate and learn from one another as well as the data.
“It’s money well spent,” said Burton.
The teachers’ collaborative efforts and significant time together have resulted in a very bonded group of professionals, said Malinowski. That, he said, is very important – it means not only do you care about your own students, you care about your colleague’s students’ success too, and everyone works seamlessly together to spot weaknesses and address them as quickly as possible.
This model has also paid off in terms of the school’s growth measure. While East Garner’s students’ one-time achievement on end-of-grade and end-of-course tests is still not high as compared with their peer institutions across Wake County, the school’s students, of which a large population live in poverty, have made significant progress from where they started.
“As a parent, no matter where my child starts from in terms of academic achievement, I would want to know if my child is learning and growing,” said Burton.
East Garner’s letter grade, however, to a large degree does not reflect students’ academic growth.
Where do we go from here
“Success is not the same for every child, but every child can be successful,” said Burton, who said that academic growth should be weighted more heavily than it currently is.
Politicians, pundits and education advocates from across the political spectrum have called for changing the school grading formula to something more like a 50/50 split – 50 percent of the grade would reflect students’ achievement on tests at one point in time, while the other 50 percent reflects how a school has done in pulling students along the pathway toward educational success.
Calling the current grading system broken and that it will only serve to weaken North Carolina’s public schools, Senator Josh Stein (D-Wake) filed a bill last week that would change the A-F school grading formula so that 40% of the grade would reflect academic performance and 60% would reflect academic growth over time.
Even if the formula changes for A-F school letter grades, however, what many may still be left scratching their heads over, however, is that the legislation mandating the letter grades for all schools comes with no path forward.
In a state where per-pupil spending ranked 48th in the nation in 2013, many have questioned why the letter grades don’t serve as an indicator for where increased funding and resources should be allocated to bring up low-performing schools.
“I think we all recognize that there are schools in this state that are not performing effectively,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham). “What [the grades] demand us to do as a legislature is to create…special funding that can be targeted specifically for these schools that are deeply troubled, many of which are dealing with low-wealth populations…and incentivize strong teachers to go in there and work in those schools,” said Senator McKissick.
But the law does nothing along those lines. Instead, schools are simply required to send a letter home with parents whose children attend D or F schools. There is no plan to allocate more resources to those schools or assist teachers and administrators with developing better curriculum.
“How are you going to reward and share best practices for the schools that end up as As,” questioned Public School Forum’s Keith Poston on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon . “And what are you going to do to support those schools that get Ds and Fs to bring them along?”
“Lots of things they can be doing, but right now it looks like more of a slap the letter on the door and see what happens,” said Poston.
And next year, school grades will be based on a ten point scale instead of this year’s introductory fifteen point scale. That means it’s possible East Garner will actually drop a letter grade, even if they continue to make good progress bringing their students up from where they have begun, academically speaking.
Burton says all they can do is stay focused.
“We’re not legislators, we’re teachers…we’re going to use the data, whatever that is, to help us understand where we are and where we want to go.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org  Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC
Photos by Ricky Leung