Three local schools on state ‘Focus’ list
by By CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  Banner Staff Writer and DELANEY WALKER  Banner Staff Writer
Aug 24, 2014 | 1029 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Three local schools have been included on the preliminary list of Focus Schools by the Tennessee Department of Education.

E.L. Ross Elementary School, which is part of the Cleveland City school system, and Park View and Taylor Elementary Schools, which are part of the Bradley County school system, have been named to this year’s list of Focus Schools.

The schools that have been designated Focus Schools are “... the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners,” according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

E.L. Ross Elementary Principal Lisa Earby confirmed an achievement gap between Black/Hispanic/Native American students and all other students’ Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test scores in math, English and language arts and science prompted the “Focus” designation.

“We have really been spending a lot of time … working on trying to figure out if we can identify those students and then maybe look at when they came to us,” Earby said. “We did find several ... who did not score proficient on TCAP who came to us later in the year.”

Supervisor of Curriculum K-12 Jeff Elliott added, “It kind of goes back to that transient discussion. Sometimes we get students who leave and then come back in the middle of the year.”

Earby said her leadership team at E.L. Ross is attempting to find the root cause of the issue.

Supervisor of Data Management and Assessment Michael Kahrs explained the gap could have been the result of four or five students’ marks.

“It could be as simple as four or five high performing students in [the BHN] subgroup went to the middle school, and four or five low performing students came into the elementary school,” he said.

Earby stressed the Focus School designation does not mean the entire school population received poor marks.

E.L. Ross received the highest achievement scores of the elementary schools in the Cleveland school system, Earby and Elliott said. The Focus School designation is to ensure no subgroup is being left behind.

“We are looking at a lot of different interventions for those students,” Earby said. “This is considered a planning year. It is a three-year process to get off of the list. We’ve already started brainstorming. Our leadership team is looking at different options.”

Earby said the leadership team is focused on all areas of the students’ education.

“Let’s think about their issues, not just academic. Do they have anything going on at home that we can intervene with?” she said. “You know, so we can provide support that way because it all falls together. We are looking at a lot of different factors, not just academics.”

Director of Bradley County Schools Johnny McDaniel said the inclusion of Park View and Taylor Elementary schools on the Focus Schools list was based on a variety of factors, and it did not mean the schools were doing poorly overall.

Both of the Bradley County schools were designated as Focus Schools because of the gaps shown to exist between economically disadvantaged students and students who are not.

“Last year’s data was actually really good for Taylor,” McDaniel said.

Angie Gill, Bradley County Schools’ data analysis and testing coordinator, explained that the decision of whether or not to designate a school of Focus schools is based on the percentage of how many students are considered “proficient and advanced” in various subject areas after they are tested.

The difference that results from subtracting the number of “proficient and advanced” students from the total number of students in a given subgroup — like economically disadvantaged students — is the number used to determine whether or not “gaps” exist in student performance.

“Every year, you’re supposed to reduce those gaps,” Gill said.

That was an especially “difficult” task for Taylor Elementary over the past year because she said economically disadvantaged students are actually in the majority instead of just being a minority subgroup.

Gill said only 30 students attending Taylor last year were not considered economically disadvantaged students. When that happens, she explained, a school’s main focus has to be on helping everyone score better, and getting the majority of the student body to perform as well as 30 students can be a challenge.

“When you only have 30 kids, it’s hard to make that gap close,” Gill said. “You’re focused on helping everyone improve.” 

McDaniel said Park View had problems with the closure of its gap because the school’s student body is “very diverse,” and it can be difficult to pinpoint a minority group while a school is working to improve the test scores of all its students.

A school can improve its overall test scores while still having a subgroup gap, he explained. Working on closing the gaps at the two Focus Schools is expected to be a priority over the remainder of the current school year.

“We’re going to be committed to helping them address the gaps,” McDaniel said.

Gill said both schools have been working on addressing the achievement gaps at their schools.

One factor that is thought to contribute to the creation of these gaps in schools is that students who come from homes of higher economic statuses often have parents who are more involved in their children’s schools because education is given more of a priority in their homes.

She said parents need to know that education has continually changed and that education is important in today’s society.

With the idea that helping parents understand the importance of school can in turn help students better succeed, both Park View and Taylor have been making efforts to improve parent involvement at their schools by holding meetings for parents. However, Gill said she has been told the number of attendees at these meetings is “... not the number that you would want to see.” 

They have also held meetings for the parents of 3- and 4-year-old children zoned for the school in an effort to teach parents how to get their children prepared for school. Those meetings have been based on the idea that everyday tasks can be adapted to teach young children what they need to know. For example, time doing a chore like sorting and matching clean socks can be spent teaching children how to tell the difference between two colors.

“It’s hard when you’re a Focus School and you’ve been working so hard,” Gill said.

Gill stressed that a school being named a Focus School does not mean it has been punished by the state. She said it just means that the school and its governing school system need to “focus” on improving the way things are.

The statewide Focus Schools list is preliminary and is pending final approval by the Tennessee Board of Education on Tuesday.

If the list is confirmed with all three local schools still on it, those schools will be eligible to apply for state grants to pay for professional development and other resources in hopes of decreasing their achievement gaps. The state education department also recently announced it is putting together an “intensive, regional support team” to assist Focus Schools as they work to address that concern.