Luther celebrates "reward school" status

LUTHER — When 100 K-5 students go back to school Tuesday at Luther Elementary School, they will enter a newly accredited “reward school.”

The school joined 285 other Michigan public K-12 schools in being recognized as “reward schools” according to a new classification system unveiled by the Michigan Department of Education on Aug. 2.

In addition to its annual Top to Bottom Ranking, the state also defined three new classifications for which schools can qualify: reward schools, focus schools and priority schools.

“Reward school” status means they are in the top 5 percent of schools statewide making the greatest academic progress in the past four years or are in the top 5 percent of schools according to the Top to Bottom ranking. Luther Elementary’s Top to Bottom score ranks in the 72nd percentile, meaning the school scored higher than 1,552 other elementary schools in the state.

“I think the staff at Luther Elementary are doing an excellent job with kids who are struggling,” said Jim Ganger, Pine River School District superintendent. “Scores are up because these kids get so much help. We’re proud of them.”

The three new classifications for schools are the result of greater flexibility allowed by a federal waiver from meeting No Child Left Behind stipulations. NCLB, passed in 2001, required that all students test as proficient by 2014. Michigan’s request for a waiver was granted in July, which allowed the MDE to set different proficiency goals and establish its own definition of schools that are succeeding or struggling.

Focus schools are the 10 percent of schools with the widest gap in achievement between the top 30 percent of their students and lowest 30 percent of their students. Across the state, 358 schools fell into that category, including LeRoy Elementary.

Priority schools, previously known as Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools, are schools that fall into the bottom 5 percent of the Top to Bottom list. The 146 priority schools identified this year must implement an intervention model designed to improve student achievement, otherwise they will be taken over by the state’s Education Achievement Authority.

Luther Elementary building leader Dawn Vanderhoof credits the reward status to a group of volunteers who come to the school weekly and assist the school’s eight teachers in offering students one-on-one help. Many volunteers are retired or senior citizens from the community and help students with reading, mathematics, writing and other subjects each student needs help with.

“We have a very strong group of volunteers who are probably in our building 28 to 30 hours a week, and they are helping kids academically,” Vanderhoof said.

She also credits the school’s Title I teacher, a teacher paid with federal dollars provided to schools with high numbers or high percentages of low-income or at-risk children, who offers targetted assistance to students.

“Our Title I staff works very closely with our teachers to help the kids,” Vanderhoof said. “Because of testing, (completed by the Title I teacher) I think our teachers really pinpoint what our kids need.”

Kindergarden teacher Stephanie McConnell said the school’s small size is a benefit to student achievement. With a roughly 13-to-one student to teacher ratio, teachers are able to better help students individually.

“We try to find strategies that work for kids and if they don’t work, we try again,” McConnell said. “And we have great supportive parents.”

Though Vanderhoof is proud of the recognition Luther Elementary has received, she said there still is room for positive change in the school. She sees the new status as motivation to keep improving.

“It’s a nice distinction to receive, but we certainly know we’re not there yet. There is still a lot of work to be done,” Vanderhoof said.

The following factors are included in the Top to Bottom ranking:
  • Achievement in five content areas as tested by the MEAP at different grade levels;
  • Improvement in achievement over time;
  • Gap in achievement between top scoring 30 percent of students and bottom scoring 30 percent of students;
  • Graduation rate;
  • Improvement in graduation rate over time; and
  • Z-score, which assigns an overall numerical value to a school compared to the state average.