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Low-income children, high performing schools

By Dr. Terry Stoops
Posted Thursday, February 19, 2015

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Raleigh, NC - Since the release of grades based on the state's new school performance grade system, the mainstream media and liberal advocacy organizations have focused on the number of low-income schools that received a D or F. If they weren't so hell-bent on criticizing and ridiculing Republican education policies, they would celebrate the outstanding achievements of the 150 low-income public schools that earned an A or B.

When the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) released school performance grades earlier this month, public school advocacy groups noted that the grades reflected the socioeconomic makeup of the schools. They observed that schools with few free and reduced price lunch students generally received As and Bs, while schools with a majority of disadvantaged students received Ds and Fs.

While some liberal commentators used it as an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of poverty and broken families in our public schools, others speculated that the main purpose of the school performance grades was to humiliate schools that enroll a significant number of disadvantaged children. Their ridiculous claim is built on the belief that Republicans hate poor people and despise those who claim to champion anti-poverty measures. In this way, the "humiliation thesis" posits that school performance grades are an extension of conservatives' intense animosity toward low-income children and their parents.

Contrary to what the radical left may say, Republicans do not hate poor people or the institutions, particularly public schools, that may lift them out of poverty. They simply want to give taxpayers information to better evaluate investments in those institutions. After all, it does the poor no favors to overestimate the very institutions designed to provide their children the means to realize a more prosperous future. We know, all too well, that some public schools are not up to that task.

But some are. A closer look at the school performance grades shows that around 150 of North Carolina's public schools with at least half of students eligible for a free or reduced price lunch earned an A or B. They did so by performing well on state tests and other student achievement measures, which account for 80 percent of the grade. The remaining 20 percent of the grade took academic growth into account. (As I wrote earlier this month, legislators may consider altering this formula to provide a system of school performance grades that compensate for demographic differences among schools and districts.)

The highest performing elementary schools in this cohort were Riverbend Elementary in Haywood County, Rutherford College Elementary in Burke County, Beaver Dam Elementary in Cumberland County, and Ocracoke School (Pre-K-12) in Hyde County. All four schools earned As overall, and three of the four schools exceeded growth expectations on state tests. At least 80 percent of the students in these schools were at or above grade level on state reading, math, and science tests.

The top middle school was Hendersonville Middle School in Henderson County, followed closely by Burke Middle School in Burke County. Both schools earned Bs overall and exceeded growth expectations. While both schools performed reasonably well in reading and science, they struggled in math.

Fourteen high schools in this cohort, including Ocracoke School, earned A grades. Challenger Early College High in Catawba County and Jacket Academy at Carver High School in Forsyth County were among the top scoring schools in the state. Henderson County Early College and J.D. Clement Early College High School also earned exemplary scores.

Obviously, this cursory analysis does not address the reasons why these schools were successful. I suspect that each of these schools have outstanding teachers and administrators, supportive educational environments, and high expectations for all students. Perhaps now that we've identified these superb schools, some enterprising researchers or doctoral students will identify the unique elements of their success and share their findings with schools that struggle to adequately educate disadvantaged students.

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Low-income children, high performing schools