State tags struggling local schools

ADDISON COUNTY — Acting in accordance with a new federal mandate, school officials in Vermont last week identified 10 of the state’s lowest-achieving schools, and offered the promise of hefty federal funding to those willing to make significant changes.
Addison County students attend four of the 10 schools that cropped up on the list: Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, the Bridport Central School, Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, and Fair Haven Union High School, where students from Orwell are schooled.
The 10 schools are eligible for a combined $8 million in federal school-improvement grants, but the money comes with strings attached, and local school officials are hesitant to commit to any major school overhauls just yet.
Vermont educational officials were careful to say that in any other state, the schools singled out for poor performance in Vermont would have been considered successful: Statewide, Vermont students’ performance on national tests typically places the state among the top five in the country.
Despite the success, the state is still required to identify its “persistently low-achieving” schools under a new requirement from the U.S. Department of Education.
The schools were selected based on New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test scores through 2008, with additional weight given to the scores for children who typically struggle the most on the reading and math tests: those enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, who have disabilities, or who are recent immigrants.
For the schools to receive a cut of the $8 million in federal grants, they must move ahead with one of four models for school improvement laid out by the U.S. Department of Education. The models include closing the school; closing the school and reopening as a charter school; replacing the principal and 50 percent of the teachers; or executing a comprehensive “transformation” model, which could include replacing the principal.
Local school officials said those strict rules makes accepting the federal grants a big decision.
Mount Abe school board chair Lanny Smith said it’s too soon to know what the list will mean for Mount Abe. He did point out that the school has worked hard over the last few years to make changes, and hired a new principal who took the helm this year.
“We have to evaluate whether the money’s worth taking,” Smith said. “It may change education in a way that we don’t want to go.”
Bridport Central School board chair Brian Desforges agreed that it is simply too soon to know how Bridport’s elementary school will react to the designation. Desforges said the Bridport board is beginning to ask the state questions, and will wait until more information is available to decide how to move forward.
“We’re still just kind of floored by it,” Desforges said.
Bridport is in a unique position: The town was alone this year in Addison County in rejecting the proposed school spending plan on Town Meeting Day.
Principal Georgette Childs said it’s hard to know whether the school’s appearance on the list of low-achieving schools will affect future votes on the budget. She thinks voters in Bridport are of two minds on that.
Childs did voice concerns with the new designation. She thinks the school’s most recent NECAP scores, which were not included in the standings, show a change of direction.
“The school is on track for success,” Childs said. “We’ve been working for a number of years for that. They have a dedicated staff here and a very highly qualified staff. Our NECAP scores are improving. (Parents and community members) need to keep the faith. We’re doing what we need to do, and we’re doing a good job at it.”
Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease had a similar message to share. Though Bridport’s test scores were disappointing in 2008, the staff has made changes since then to invest in technology and staff development, he noted.
“As a result, progress is being made,” Sease said. “The percent of students meeting the standards in reading has gone up by five percentage points. The percent of students meeting the standards in math has gone up eight percentage points.”
Sease also mentioned that Bridport will not be dismissing any of its teachers as a result of the new “low-achieving” status, though the school may need to consider a change in the principal’s position to comply with federal requirements. On that front, though, it’s too soon to know how the situation will shake out.
At OVUHS, principal Dana Cole-Levesque — who is leaving the school at the end of the year to become the superintendent of the Rutland South Supervisory Union — said the news is disappointing, but not a surprise after OVUHS has struggled to earn the designation “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests.
“It’s hard to be characterized as one of the lowest-achieving (schools),” Cole-Levesque said. “The frustration from our standpoint is, we’re working really hard to improve the learning outcomes for all kids. We are taking steps to improve instructional strategies. We’re doing lots of things, and we are showing progress, we’re just not showing as much as (other schools).”
Cole-Levesque didn’t know whether Otter Valley would accept federal funding, which for the school could break down into roughly $600,000 over the course of three years. Otter Valley administrators have already been working with the state Department of Education to draft an individualized plan to address the school’s lagging test scores. If that plan lines up well with a transformation model, the school may consider that approach.
Cole-Levesque defended the school’s performance, though he acknowledged math scores in particular have been a challenge for many of the high school’s students.
On the whole, though, he said the school does well by its students. More than 60 percent go on to some kind of post-secondary studies, and Otter Valley’s graduation rate is higher than the state average.
“Parents who send their kids here know that we do a really good job for their kids,” Cole-Levesque said.
Mount Abe’s Smith and OV’s Cole-Levesque both expressed frustration that the federal mandate calls for singling out schools in Vermont that, in any other state, would have likely been deemed successful. According to Cole-Levesque, the federal mandate is designed to apply primarily to struggling urban schools — a model that, to his mind, doesn’t fit well in Vermont.
“We’ve set the bar higher, and now we’re getting punished for it,” Smith said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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