Each morning at my son’s elementary school begins with a short character lesson delivered over the PA system by the school principal. In her calm and encouraging voice, she reminds the children to set goals for themselves and plan ahead. To seek first to understand instead of being understood. And to know they can always talk to her or a teacher about any problem they aren’t sure how to solve.
This same school regularly hosts events like book fairs and “book bingo” nights heavily attended by children eager to win the prize of a book. Within six weeks of starting kindergarten here, my son – now in first grade – learned how to read. Halfway through the school year, his accelerated reading group was mastering words like “rhythm” and “molecule.”
Our county spelling bee winner, in fact, was a fourth-grade student at this school – which, thanks to North Carolina’s General Assembly, was recently assessed an overall performance grade of C.
Given that most students here qualify for free lunch, it would have been a statistical miracle if the school had received anything higher based on the grading formula. Most Rutherford County schools received the same grade – and most, like my son’s, are considered a poverty-level school.
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It could have been worse. Only 11 percent of Rutherford County schools received a D while 35 percent of poverty-level schools statewide were assessed this grade. No school in the county received an F grade; 11 percent of poverty-level schools in the state did.
Rutherford County schools are obviously doing something out of the ordinary to buck these state averages.
As for the formula used to derive these grades for elementary schools, it’s embarrassingly simplistic for an initiative supposedly intended to increase academic rigor. A full 80 percent of my son’s school performance grade is based on scores from one end-of-year test, with a paltry 20 percent based on student academic growth. The latter is the difference in a student’s test scores between the beginning and end of the year.
Along with many others, State Superintendent of Education June Atkinson has stated that academic growth is more indicative of a school’s true performance than an end-of-year test. From my perspective, it also better takes into account factors beyond our teachers’ control, such as a student's home life.
At my son’s school, I’ve witnessed a woman dressed in cut-off shorts and flip flops, her neck half-covered in tattoos, approach a young girl emerging from the front doors giggling with her friends at the end of the first day of school. Where’s Mom? the girl asked.
In jail was the awful response.
I’ve seen first-graders struggle to read words like “the” and “as.” When I ask whether they practice reading at home, the answer is invariably no. Administrators tell me there are kindergartners who hold books upside down as if they’ve never been read to before.
It sounds rather hopeless, yet I’ve watched teachers and volunteers (many of whom are retired teachers) swing into action to help these children make up lost ground. And slowly but surely, over the months, I’ve seen these children learn to read.
Maybe not as quickly and nimbly as they would if they’d been exposed to books earlier, but they are working hard and making real progress. Because kids want to learn. They want to understand their reading and math lessons.
Although letter grades give us an easy means to evaluate a school, we know the easy way out often isn’t the right one. Parents should weigh more factors than that, and during visits to different schools, trust their instincts about what they see and hear. Should we base such an important decision on what is essentially a single metric: end-of-year test grades?
Schools like my son’s are an oasis of order and functionality in former mill towns across North Carolina that are barely holding on in the wake of job-killing trade treaties and the worst recession in a generation. Instead of stigmatizing schools that can be bright spots for faltering communities, why not get serious about lifting these communities up once and for all?
Stephanie Janard is a correspondent for the Daily Courier of Rutherford County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.