Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part X): Deer-Mt. Judea not permitted to raise taxes

It's been a while since I posted under this series, but as I review the summer's issues of the Newton County Times that have been piling up, I see quite a few stories about the county's four schools.  Many of them are about personnel changes.  For example, one front-page story from May is headlined "Board approves raises for cooks" and reports that the Jasper School Board granted school cooks a raise--up 94 cents to $10/hour.  The superintendent said the raise was appropriate because staffing levels had been cut and because the staff now provide greater services, including "Breakfast in the classroom," grab'n'go breakfast, and daily fruit and vegetable snacks every afternoon.

Other stories are weightier, however, discussing the survival of the Deer-Mt. Judea School District, which has been under threat of imminent consolidation because its enrollment has been hovering around the 350 student minimum for several years.

One thing the school district has done is seek foreign exchange students to bolster its enrollment, and a late July story makes a call for host families for the students, noting that students need to be settled two weeks before school starts.

The school district also moved this year to pass a tax increase which would permit it to undertake the construction of several new buildings valued at $1.3 million.  I wrote about this matter here, and how it might be a strategy aimed at preventing consolidation.  The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) may have thought so, too, because the August 22, 2012 paper indicates that ADE "has denied it permission allowing the school district to seek the millage and additional debt service."  The report does not specify the reason for the denial.  That same issue of the paper indicates that the Deer-Mt. Judea school board has denied requests by students to transfer out of the school district but that it has accepted three requests for students to transfer in.  Some of these transfer requests complied with Arkansas's School Choice legislation, but others did not.  Read more about the School Choice law here.

Meanwhile, Mt. Judea is among area schools that have been place on the state's Needs Improvement Focus (NIF) list.  A lengthy story about Oark High School, part of the Jasper School District, having been placed on the NIF list explains (partially) what this means.  The July 18, 2012 story suggests that Oark was placed on the list because of poor student test scores, although the district has not been "told yet why we've been flagged."  The U.S. Dept. of Education requires each state to designate at least 10% of its schools as NIF, and the schools are identified "based on the size of the achievement gap between subgroups of students rather than the performance of all student groups."   Specifically, students are designated "Targeted Achievement Gap Group" (TAGG), meaning they are at risk based on "economic disadvantage, English learner status, or disabilities."  The size of achievement gaps between TAGG and non-TAGG students is what causes schools to be designated NFI.  Schools on the NIF list have achievement gaps ranging from 28.5% to 47.7%, but the Arkansas Dept. of Education (ADE) has not told Oark or the other schools how great their gaps are.  ADE also has not told these schools what to expect, but it has indicated that it will "distribute resources to help persistently struggling schools."  The USDE has granted ADE a waiver from No Child Left Behind so that schools are no longer expected to meet 100% proficiency; instead schools will be assessed base on progress from year to year.

The principal of the Oark school, in presenting students' test data to the local Board of Education, noted that "small numbers skew percentages" and vowed to break the data down to "show teacher how important individual instruction is rather than teaching to a whole group."  He also commented:
There are some areas that I am really embarrassed bout and I promise you when we're looking at test scores next year you won't see this.
At the other end of the TAGG spectrum is Kingston School, also part of the Jasper District but in neighboring Madison County.  Kingston recently received a commendation as one of 19 "Exemplary schools" in Arkansas.  It apparently qualified under the category of "schools with large populations of at-risk students with high progress," though the story did not make that clear, simply listing it as one of the four categories of schools honored.  TAGG was used to measure the size of the population of at risk students.  Schools were considered to have high TAGG populations if 2/3 of students are economically disadvantaged, English as a second language, or disabled.  I wrote here about an earlier commendation for the Kingston School a few years ago.

In other news, the Mt. Judea Area Alliance offered a Summer Learning Camp at the school for one week of mornings in June.  Subjects included reading, math, art, music and science.  Students were required to provide their own transportation.  The camp was not affiliated with the school but was staffed principally by the district's teachers.

The Newton County Resource Council received a $1000 mini grant from Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas.  The grant was used to help fund a daily summer youth camp for children aged 6 to 14 at Jasper's Bradley Park.  The camp ran for four weeks and was called Camp Fit-n-Fun.  Breakfast and lunch were provided to children every day.  The Arkansas Workforce Program provided counselors.  The Newton County grant was one of 23 awarded by Blue and You Foundation to health improvement programs throughout the state.

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