OVUHS, Bridport scratched from school watch list

BRIDPORT/BRANDON — Administrators at Bridport Central School and Otter Valley Union High School breathed a collective sigh of relief on Tuesday after the Vermont Department of Education removed the schools from a list of Vermont’s 10 persistently lowest achieving schools.
The schools were initially tagged for the list in a memo released last week, but state education officials on Tuesday said “human error” meant that two of the identified schools — Bridport and OV — were mistakenly included.
“This is a huge relief,” said Addison Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Lee Sease.
The revised list still includes Mount Abraham and Fair Haven union high schools, which both educate youngsters from Addison County, plus St. Johnsbury School and Lamoille Union High School have moved onto the docket as well.
Federal mandate requires states to identify these low-achieving schools, which are now eligible for federal grants. Vermont has been allocated $8 million to overhaul these schools, but the funds come with strings attached: Schools that accept the money are required to make enormous changes at their institutions, including potentially firing principals and teachers.
Schools were considered for the list if students didn’t meet “adequate yearly progress” goals on standardized tests, and if schools received or qualified to receive federal funding to serve low-income students. 
Bridport and Otter Valley were mistakenly included on the list after staff at the Department of Education did not include one element of a calculation in the complicated formula for identifying and ranking schools.
Sease said he welcomed the good news for Bridport, which has shown improvement in the most recent round of New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) test scores. Because the state’s calculations only included NECAP scores through 2008, though, those strides weren’t included in Bridport’s standing.
“Bridport’s been doing some good things as of late,” Sease said. “Student performance in math and reading are going up, and the science scores exceed the state average. They are headed in the right direction. This was just an unfortunate set of circumstances.”
Sease also said he thought the federal mandate didn’t fit rural schools. Some of the recommendations for failing schools — including the option to simply shut schools down — don’t make sense in a state where many school districts include single schools.
Prior to this week’s news, Sease faced the tough decision of trying to come up with a “corrective action” plan for Bridport that would have honored the work the staff has already done while still complying with federal regulations. Now, he said, he won’t have to make those choices.
Sease added that Bridport staff are already on a good path to improving their school. The school has invested in staff development in literacy and math, and has brought more technology into the classroom.
The school has also instituted a new “positive behavior supports” system that tries to emphasize good social skills among students. So far, the early data shows that discipline referrals at the school are down.
“I think what they need to do is just keep doing what they’re doing,” Sease said. “They’re working as a team.”
At Otter Valley, administrators saw the school’s removal from the low-achieving list as good news, but the fact that as a result the school will not be eligible for roughly $600,000 in federal funding as bad news.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle said the change in ranking will not really change what OV is trying to do to improve student performance given that reduced state funding was always an issue.
“The reality is now we have to figure out how to move forward without having a substantial infusion of resources from the state,” he said. “But some initiatives are not contingent upon funding but rather shifts in practices.”
He said the two areas where additional funding is needed are intervention support for struggling students and professional development.
Ultimately, Castle said the promised funding for the low achievers amounted to a federal carrot that also came with a stick. While it would have helped pay for much-needed initiatives, the change needed at the school comes from within.
“I want OV to make decisions and move forward on their own determination, not because someone is dangling money in front of them,” he said. “I want them to make decisions about moving the school forward that are in the best interest of the students and what they believe in.”
Schools identified on the list have a choice of improvement models to adopt in order to make needed changes. Castle said OV would have adopted the Transformation Model, which identifies many of the practices already in place or on tap at the school. For instance a change in leadership is already planned as OV Principal Dana Cole-Levesque is leaving in June to helm the Rutland South Supervisory Union, and associate principals Jim Avery and Nancy Robinson will take over. The school is scrapping a math program that does not meet state education standards. The Freshman Academy and the Moosalamoo Center are already in place, improving the way education is delivered by making it more interesting and addressing the needs of students who learn differently.
Castle said belief in the school’s goals from within will make the difference in the long run, and the fact that OV is not on “the list” should only embolden the staff to new levels.
“I believe it’s essential to have buy-in and ownership of the staff in order for these initiatives to be successful,” he said. “There is a shift between change that you embrace as opposed to change that is thrust upon you.”

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