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Good school. Struggling school. All in the same district.

Grand Rapids Public Schools officials are rightly proud of the success of the district’s Coit Creative Arts Academy. The elementary school has seen its students overcome high poverty – nearly 9 in 10 are eligible for a subsidized lunch – to produce excellent test scores; and Coit ranks as one of Bridge Magazine’s 2014 Academic State Champs.

But despite Coit’s success, the district has other schools – with similar levels of student poverty – that performed poorly. Four schools were in the bottom quarter of elementary schools statewide in Bridge’s rankings, which measure academic performance while factoring in the impact of student family income. Five, including Coit, were in the top quarter.

The stark disparity in school performance within some districts was revealed in the new school-level analysis undertaken by Bridge this year, underscoring gaps that should grab the attention of parents and educators across the state.

Grand Rapids administrators are well aware of the differences among their 17 elementary schools, which they say are being addressed by a comprehensive overhaul the district began a year ago. Spokesman John Helmholdt said the district has already seen improvements.

“Our graduation rates and test scores are on the rise. We are restoring stability to the district and finally stopping the churn,” Helmholdt said. “But as the Bridge report demonstrates, we have a lot more work to do. We could make excuses about poverty, funding cuts, inequitable funding, and other X factors, but we won't.”

Grand Rapids isn’t the only district facing disparities. A number of the state’s largest districts, covering more than 300 schools, have some schools with State Champ-level scores and others among the poorest performing in the state. How a single district can produce schools of varying accomplishment isn’t always easy to determine, especially when its schools have similar poverty levels. Does one school have a huge population of newly arrived immigrants, for instance, who don’t have the language skills of students in neighboring schools? Is one school getting higher-performing teachers than another, or more teachers who are teaching outside their fields of expertise? Could a rock-star principal mean the difference?

The Detroit Public Schools, which has seen myriad efforts to revitalize its troubled schools, has traditionally gotten poor marks from Academic State Champs. As a group, the district’s elementary schools ranked 580th out of 653 districts in 2014.

But Bridge’s school-level analysis shows a more nuanced reality: Despite having 40 of its traditional public elementary schools mired in the bottom quarter of statewide achievement, eight Detroit elementaries are in the top quarter – inlcuding four Academic State Champs: Thirkell, Davison, Dixon and Chrysler. Six other DPS elementary schools are in the second highest-achieving quarter.

For a district often dismissed as dysfunctional, these high-performing Detroit schools – home to more than 4,000 students ‒ are succeeding. Finding the reasons for such successes successes (and failures) is important, particularly when the same district oversees examples of each. The reasons could be many: the nuances of poverty, the stability within students’ homes, how a school markets its strengths, even the distance parents are willing to send their children for school.

And often, the answer may be found in the principal’s office, said Armen Hratchian, vice president for K-12 systems with Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit coalition that advocates for better schools in the city and offers school grades for parents.

“More important than systems are the people in and around the school,” Hratchian said. “Great schools have great leaders who build and support great teams. And they know how to build and sustain meaningful relationships with families and the community. It's hard to replicate.”

What gives

In districts across Michigan, the State Champs rankings offer one way of gauging school quality. State Champs accounts for the impact of one, very important measure – the level of student poverty – and compares how schools with students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds are doing. The analysis also shows broad differences among some schools, even when poverty levels are similar.

In the Kalamazoo schools, the Woodward School for Technology and Research and Northeastern Elementary both teach populations with poverty rates above 90 percent. But on state MEAP tests, Northeastern students perform better overall. In fourth-grade math in 2013, nearly 49 percent of Northeastern students were rated proficient by the state, compared with only 20 percent at Woodward. In fourth-grade writing, 28.6 percent of Northeastern students were proficient, compared with 14.3 percent at Woodward.

“They should be looking at the rankings, sure,” said Tim Bartik, a senior economist at W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and a former member of the Kalamazoo school board, said of the questions these scores raise for Kalamazoo and other districts. But Bartik said that while student income levels are a key component of student achievement, the rankings may not tell the whole story.

“You should be looking at multiple measures,” he said. For instance, he noted that a number of children of Western Michigan University graduate students – who make so little they would meet the standards for a free or reduced-priced lunch – attend Kalamazoo schools. Though they may be poor, they live in households with other advantages: highly educated parents. So their scores may be higher than expected.

Bartik said parents trying to judge a school should look at test scores – but they should also be investigating the kindergarten classroom, and they should visit the principal’s office, which may offer other clues to a school’s success.

For Amber Arellano, executive director of the nonprofit Education Trust-Midwest, an education advocacy group, rankings like Bridge’s shouldn’t force parents to ask more questions. Her organization is calling for a better student assessment program at the state level so that administrators have the tools to discover what works and what does not. Part of those changes include a revamped student testing schedule that better measures student growth.

“It’s not the job of parents to do studies of what’s going on in schools,” she said. The burden for assessment, evaluation and accountability rests with the state. “That’s why it’s so important to do a better job in the role (the state) plays.”

In some school districts, differences in school performance can be great, even when the district overall is exceeding expectations. In the Bay City Public Schools, the average State Champs elementary school score was above average in 2014 compared with the elementary school performance of other districts in the state. Superintendent Doug Newcombe lauded his high-flying students, who have earned millions in college scholarships, but acknowledged that some schools need more help.
“We also have a number that are struggling and that bothers me,” he said. Three of the district’s elementary schools were in the top quarter statewide, one was in the bottom quarter.

To help those not doing as well, Bay City has put a number of programs in place to deal with students struggling academically. He said teachers and principals work together to identify those who may be struggling and engage them in some kind of intervention, whether it be inside or outside the classroom.

He said the district saw some success in such programs at three of its schools last year, including Washington Elementary, where more than 85 percent of students are eligible for a free or cut-price lunch. Proficiency levels there have mostly risen the last three years and the school was in the top quarter in the state.

“We made significant gains last year in helping special education and economically challenged students,” Newcombe said. “We're seeing these strategies working.”

Differences within districts can prompt questions, and reports like Academic State Champs and Excellent Schools Detroit’s scorecard provide parents with the necessary tools to ask them, Hratchian said.

“You’re empowering parents with really important information to choose a school, and also to engage in the improvement of their current school," he said. “And we think that matters."

MLive reporters Dominic Adams, Julie Mack and Andrew Dodson also contributed to this report.

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