One Dearborn school soars. Another stumbles. Why?

(Today’s stories are the first of two parts on gaps within school districts. Part 2 runs next week)

DEARBORN – There are few places more colorful and heartwarming than an elementary school that is clicking on all cylinders, and Geer Park Elementary in Dearborn is doing exactly that. On a recent visit before summer break, adorable children moved through the halls, many of the girls in hijabs, the most obvious visual clue that this is a school where two-thirds of students speak Arabic at home and English as a second language.

You wouldn’t know it from a glance at their most recent MEAP test scores. While many English language learners struggle in early grades, 67 percent of Geer Park third graders met or exceeded state standards in reading in the most recent state data, 6 points above the state average. What’s more, most of those students come from economically disadvantaged homes – 80 percent, making the achievement that much more impressive. Geer Park’s ability to overcome poverty and language gaps led to the school being ranked 6th out of 1,210 elementaries statewide in Bridge’s Academic State Champs analysis this year.

Across town, Lindbergh Elementary also shows every sign of thriving, and by many measures it is. Walls are plastered with student work and classrooms buzzed with activity in the last weeks of the school year. On the second floor, parent volunteers set up a refreshment station for third-graders taking the first day of state tests in English language arts.

According to everything we know about education statistics, they should outscore the students at Geer Park. Only about a third of the Lindbergh student body are economically disadvantaged, and about a quarter are classified as English language learners. But Lindbergh’s 2013-14 scores on third-grade reading tests were 13 points below Geer Park’s, and seven points below the state average.

The school is doing well in other areas; in third-grade math, its scores are above the state average. And in later grades, Lindbergh students perform well above both the state average and those students at Geer Park. But at a time when state policymakers are considering making third-grade reading scores a critical measure of early literacy, schools can ill afford a disappointing showing, even if their students are performing well otherwise, as are the students at Lindbergh.

Jill Chochol, associate superintendent for elementary education in Dearborn Public Schools, has a simple answer when asked her opinion for the third-grade reading score discrepancies at the two schools:

“I don’t know.”

High stakes, murky causes

Across the country, data has never been so important in public education. Depending on the state and its policies, test scores and other measurements of student learning may be tied to school funding, teacher salaries and evaluation and administration; Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority was created by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to turn around failing schools, based largely on their abysmal test scores. Parents check district test scores when shopping for housing, and good scores can drive property values higher.

But drill down to the school level, and test scores can sometimes be like pressing one’s nose to a pointillist painting – a lot of dots that critics say don’t necessarily make a clear picture.

MORE COVERAGE: Grand Rapids cites the limits of state rankings to explain school gaps

Why did Geer Park, with a higher percentage of students living in poverty and greater language challenges, have such high scores? The principal is dedicated, the teachers likewise. There’s extra help for students who need it, constant reinforcement of best-practice techniques and parent buy-in.

Why were Lindbergh’s scores so far below? That school’s principal and faculty are also dedicated. Like other educators in Dearborn, they have data on individual students, and know who needs extra help, and see that they get it. They, too, follow the curriculum closely and their parental support is as high as anywhere in the district.

There were new students at Lindbergh from outside the district in the 2013-14 school year, the year these tests were taken, these scores were recorded; were they less prepared than the children who started there in kindergarten? Was there a curveball on the test itself? Chochol, the assistant superintendent, recalls that the district had been using primarily information-based texts in lessons, and that year, a test section on poetry took them by surprise. But both schools had the same surprise.

Or was it just a bad year at Lindbergh? This year, on the first day of M-STEP testing (which replaced the MEAP), a third-grader sat miserably in Lindbergh Principal Pam DeNeen’s office, a wastebasket beside her, in case her nausea bubbled over. Her nerves had gotten the best of her, and it was an open question whether she’d go back to class and pick up her pencil again, or retake it on a makeup day. One girl shouldn’t tip the balance, but add four or five more, and it could be enough to account for a disappointing collective result at Lindbergh, DeNeen said.

Neither DeNeen nor Lamis Srour, her counterpart at Geer Park, take special credit for their schools’ success. And neither can explain the discrepancies, not the ones in third-grade reading, or a more puzzling one: The next two grade levels, in fourth and fifth grade reading, show Lindbergh students consistently improving, while Geer Park pupils level out. Lindbergh fifth-graders outscored Geer Park’s by 25 points in reading; its fourth-graders, by 13 points.

Challenges of all kinds

Dearborn has been well-known for decades as a magnet for immigrants from the Middle East, and Geer Park has children who are both newly arrived or are the American-born children of less-recent newcomers from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other Arabic-speaking countries. In general, teachers and principals say, these parents are eager for their children to succeed in their adopted home, and support educators.

Srour does not romanticize her student body. She has a lot in common with them as the American-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants, and she knows the challenges that many of them face.

“Dearborn has the same situations you find in other cities,” she said, ticking off a few. “Single parents, divorce, children being raised by grandparents. The only thing exceptional is, we have more multi-generation homes.”

In those homes, most of these children will hear their parents and grandparents speaking Arabic or perhaps a mixture of Arabic and English. With a young child’s talent for absorbing new languages, they may well speak English fairly well when they arrive for kindergarten, but have other gaps in their knowledge – not knowing the alphabet, for instance. Language competency has four parts – speaking, listening, writing and reading. Almost all English learners, or ELs, will need extra help in one or more parts.

Geer Park teachers, Srour said, treat every student as an EL, “because they are.”

“You have to be very thoughtful about how your day looks and the lesson plan,” she said. Balancing those four components throughout the teaching day is essential, as is weaving them into other subject areas. A lesson on turtles might be developed into an opportunity for learning about language, science, social studies, art and reading.

Third-grade reading skills are considered an essential benchmark because beginning in fourth grade, the work is less about “learning to read” and more about “reading to learn,” i.e., navigating instructional texts. And, Choquol said, research shows that students who aren’t at grade level in reading by the end of third grade face steep odds of catching up. Because children from economically disadvantaged homes are more likely to be left behind, Geer Park concentrates on getting them caught up.

There are 12 summer-school slots per grade level at Geer Park, and the school’s library is open two days a week during those months. Some recent immigrants will return to their native countries for long visits during the school year. When children leave, parents and teachers meet beforehand, lesson packets are provided in advance, and a contingency letter goes into the file, laying out the expectations.

“Holding everyone accountable helps,” said Srour.

To be sure, all over the school, students routinely make remarkable progress. In one kindergarten class, a boy named Hassan worked in a small group with Mary Timpf, an instructional coach. She asked the children to spell a few simple words, using plastic letters on a board. Hassan whipped through them easily, despite having arrived in the U.S. just last October, with “not a word” of English in his vocabulary, Srour said.

Across town, a culture of learning

At Lindbergh, the challenges are different. The student body is better off economically, more likely to be speaking English at home with educated parents, and also more likely to be in stable homes. But the economic upheaval that rocked Michigan didn’t spare any part of Dearborn, DeNeen said, noting that when she came to the school 12 years ago, 98 percent of students stayed in the school from kindergarten through fifth grade; today that’s dropped to half as the city has absorbed the housing market’s instability and families move more often. The school’s economically disadvantaged population was once 3 percent, and now it’s 29 percent.

But in general, Lindbergh has all the hallmarks of a thriving, rigorous school. It has the highest parental participation rate in the district. In one classroom, a teacher shows off the pop-bottle rockets students made under the direction of a classmate’s father, an engineer, who is a participant in the Watch D.O.G.S. program, or “dads of great students.” In the fall, parents put on a “haunted school” attraction, in the spring, a fun fair to celebrate the end of the year.

“Parents here take their kids places,” said DeNeen. “They take them to (the Eastern Market’s) flower day, to places that make them well-rounded.” All of it is likely to produce capable learners.

In Jennifer Knaus’ fourth-grade classroom, she reads “Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin” aloud to the class, stopping often to ask questions about vocabulary, or to clarify a plot point. The students are engaged in both the story and the lesson, stabbing their hands in the air to answer Knaus’ questions.

Emily Blumenstein was one of the mothers passing out refreshments to third-grade test-takers, a group that included her son. Blumenstein and her husband both have master’s degrees ‒ she’s a psychotherapist, he works in public health ‒ and count themselves lucky to have chosen a house when they were childless that turned out to be in Lindbergh’s attendance area when they started their family. Besides their third-grader, they have a first-grader and a daughter starting kindergarten in the fall. They live two blocks away and couldn’t be happier.

“I’m involved in the parent groups, and nobody complains about teachers. It’s a win-win. (My) kids are all learning very well,” she said.

So what happened in 2013, the year that Geer Park outperformed Lindbergh by 13 points in third-grade reading? DeNeen, the Lindbergh principal, wishes she knew.

“We look at our data over and over and over again, to see if we’re missing something in the school,” DeNeen said. Students are regularly assessed on their reading levels, and shortfalls are addressed the same way they are at Geer Park, with one-on-one and small-group instruction and other remedial techniques.

“We’re ranked in the 93rd percentile for the state” overall, DeNeen said. “We’re a Reward School (awarded to the top schools, as measured by test scores, improvement or other factors). But do we have a bad year sometimes? Yes.”

Over at Geer Park, Srour is grateful for her team, her students and her parents, as well as whatever alchemy propelled them to such good results. She’s only been in her job two years, and credits her mentor and predecessor, Andrea Awada, with leaving her a school with a rich, supportive culture of learning.

Awada, now retired, likes to quote an inspirational poster she’s fond of, which she believes explains the puzzle as well as anything:

“According to the theory of aerodynamics, it may be readily demonstrated that the bumblebee is unable to fly,” Awada said. “This is because the size, weight and shape of its body, in relation to total wingspan, makes flying impossible.

“But the bumblebee, ignorant of these scientific truths, goes ahead and flies anyway.”

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Sharon Dulmage
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:11am
I am proud of both schools. I am curious to find out if class sizes and other resources are the same for both schools?
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 11:25am
Is the 13 point difference significant? How many total points? So many differences reported in the news are trivially small, and unlikely to be significant. How about this one???
Tue, 03/10/2020 - 11:46am

The differences include such ‘trivial’ points including the fact that Greer School, despite the odds against them (mostly all of the children are not native English speakers” as opposed to a school who has only about a fourth (?!). The economic differences - despite all this and a mention of a child waiting to see the Principal she is so afraid of she’s got a bucket next to her lest she vomit in terror.
I see one glaring difference right there.
Ever since it’s been scientifically proven, fear (both now and then) was considered bullying by a teacher or Principal. Clearly one school didn’t get that memo - teaching by fear gets the worst results and is no longer tolerated by any Dearborn school in the school district; but bullying by the staff, teachers and Principals alike are allowed to bully a child sick?
If I had to choose one over the other, Greer would be my choice over a school who terrifies the student over the scores. My heart goes out to that little girl who feels so much pressure it’s making her ill.
Revamp this school out of the dark ages. The proof is right here. Perhaps they should close schools like Lindburg all together. I would never send my children there.

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 12:35pm
It seems to me that you are making a mountain from an ant hill. Those of us who have spent many years in education know that there are tremendous differences in the classes of students that attend a school from one year to the next. One group can seem to be the brightest you have ever witnessed, and the next year you could swear that you never saw such slow learners before. We are not talking about iron ore pellets here; these are children! And, we also know that there are many, many variables that can effect test results from one school to another and from one year to another. You need to quit placing so much emphasis on test scores. There are many more important things for kids to learn other than how to do well on standardized tests.
Charles Richards
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 12:38pm
I'm curious whether the decline in stability at Lindbergh as noted by the statement, "12 years ago, 98 percent of students stayed in the school from kindergarten through fifth grade; today that’s dropped to half" had any significant effect on test scores? Or were any changes swamped by the natural year to year variation? And did the change reflected by the statement, "The school’s economically disadvantaged population was once 3 percent, and now it’s 29 percent." significantly affect test scores? And isn't it a mistake to switch a child from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" if they haven't learned to read proficiently" It is a real dilemma; if you spend more time teaching a student how to read, you sacrifice instruction time in other subjects, but if you don't, they "face steep odds of catching up." But it would seem that the least damaging answer is to teach them how to read.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 6:25pm
Variation is normal. Learning is not a contest. Biology does not respect the artificiality of a calendar or a clock. Context is everything. Data without context is meaningless. Children are accountable to themselves for their own learning journey. Support them on their journey, not what you perceive that journey to be. Want to know if a child is learning? Forget the test score. Ask the child.
Eldon Churchill
Wed, 06/24/2015 - 11:52pm
Chuck. You always provide clarity. But let me digress An hour ago, I read a piece written by a former member of the George H W Bush administration, within which he suggested that we, currently, are practicing "educational disarmament".The same type of language was embodied in "A Nation at Risk That document, put forward the idea that, if a foreign country had imposed the, then, state of education upon us, it would amount to a declaration of "war". Unfortunately, for the "Riskers", The Dept. of Energy, hoping to get specific documentation supporting "Risk", commissioned Sandia Corp to do the legwork. Sandia, unexpectedly, refuted just about everything embodied in "A Nation at Risk. Sandia was promptly sent to the basement of the Dept. of Energy, only rarely to be seen by the public. By way of example, Risk said the, over an expanded time period, SAT scores had gone down. Sandia said that , yes, that was true. But that happened within a context that featured a much larger group of students taking the SAT. No longer were only the very best taking the SAT. More students that were closer to average were taking the SAT. That drove the national SAT performance down. Sandia continued, stating that every subgroup measured, male, female, black, white etc. did progressively better on the SAT over the period used by Riskers. Public education was doing a good job. The media saturated their respective venues with A Nation at Risk and very rarely even acknowledged that the Sandia report existed. Others tried. David Berliner wrote a book titled "Manufactured Crisis. Gerald Bracey constantly defended public education There were others. The media had found Risk sexy. the counterpoint not so much. Since that time we have done an extraordinary amount of handwringing over our public schools that, sorry folks, if not the best in the world, is darn close to it.
David Richards
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 11:42am
Eldon, you are exactly right. Evaluating educational results often ends up as a comparison of apples to oranges. US standardized test results where nearly all students participate in the testing is not comparable to students in other countries where only the best students are likely to take the test. The US has a history of wanting to educate all students, where other countries emphasize the students seen as most capable, and encourage the rest to go to work. In addition, standardized tests can be used to prove whatever you want them to prove. If you want a high failure rate, that can be built into the test. If you want a high success rate, that can be built into the test. The political component is high in these evaluations, with elected officials and would-be elected officials often using educational policy as a political stepping-stone, taking advantage of the high concern most of us have for quality education.
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 7:01pm
Performance has much more to do with the students rather than the teachers.
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:22pm
I agree, there are year to year changes in scores. I don't think my SAT score would be the same year over year. So, does it matter, if one school is doing SLIGHTLY better then another in the same district on a single category (English) in a single year? Likely not. Celebrate the fact that BOTH schools are statically above the state average as a whole. The continuous, year after year, low scoring schools should be the concern. That aside: I feel it comes down to....parents must instill that education is important in their kids and actively SUPPORT it. Teachers and schools control the environment of learning and present the topics, but, kids learn more by actions. So, as the Dad mentioned in the article (pop bottle rockets), I make sure to not only, to be part of the school's Watch DOGS, but bring fun learning projects every year reflecting the topics and ideas presented in school. I demonstrate it is important to learn and participate in all the kids learning. Just think, if 39 other Dads came to class with a relevant topic. A different Dad, once a week, per year. Where would ALL Michigan schools be? Better, I am sure. It only cost one day's time.
John S.
Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:32pm
Why doesn't the MEAA also show conventional statistics (mean, median, standard deviation, deciles, quartiles, skewness statistic, kurtosis) for test scores? The percentage scoring above some arbitrary score conveys some information to compare school performance, but not much. My granddaughter just finished 3rd grade at Lindbergh. She loves to play Scrabble, but doesn't seem to like to read all that much, perhaps because she finds a lot of other things more fun (playing games on-line, watching videos, playing with friends, doing crafts, swimming, riding a bicycle). Competent administration, capable teaching, high parental involvement, stable curriculum, high standards, and hard work (homework) should work for all schools regardless of the socioeconomic characteristics of the students who attend.
Nell Matthews
Wed, 06/24/2015 - 9:19am
Aggregate scores are less interesting to me than a graph of individual student changes year to year. Big data program is needed to track students as they move in and out of schools and districts and even states. Thus, if one year, a set of low-achievement children move into a school, instead of lumping their scores into the mean, they should be shown as percentage increase.
Wed, 06/24/2015 - 10:41am
"According to everything we know about education statistics, they should outscore the students at..." There is something wrong when 'conventional wisdom' creates a disbelief in student success. The important information in this article is not about testing, it is about children succeeding when they weren’t expected to succeed. The students [Geer and Lindbergh schools] suggest that ‘’conventional wisdom” about what determines academic success is wrong. Based on what was reported the social situations of the parents, ‘poor’, non-English households, ethnicity, are not insurmountable barriers to learning. The students of these two schools could be a great source of information about how and why students succeed. I wonder if any of those with the resources/assess to investigate educational programs/protocols will make the effort to learn from the students at Geer and Lindbergh. I wonder if they are interested in why and how these student successes are happening. I wonder if they even consider that the student has a role/responbilities in their learning success.
Mon, 06/29/2015 - 9:21am
The premise of the article is wrong because Bridge is using the wrong data. The entire analysis done by Bridge is using the raw data set provided by the state. It includes every student that sat for the test on a given day. This includes less than full academic year students, etc. The problem with the Bridge methodology is that it does not take into account school of choice students, provisionally proficient students, student growth, etc. Which the state report card does. For example, if a student moves into a school the day before testing, his or her scores are then held against the school the student was tested in not the school that the student attended for the past year. However, on the report card, the scores of students who have not been attending school there for a full year are pulled out. Since it is not fair to hold a school accountable for students it did not educate. In actuality, when this is taken into account, Greer Park scored below Lindbergh Elementary in 4 out of 5 areas on the school report cards. Lindbergh actually scored over ten points higher on math and 2 points higher on reading on the state tests according to the report card. Likewise, the state also gives schools credit for student growth, If a school gets a student who is 3 grade levels behind, but that student shows above average growth of 2 grade levels but is still not proficient, the state will give a school credit for the growth. This is also not accounted for in the Bridge analysis. This creates an incentive for schools to push out underperforming students because they can bump up their scores. Meanwhile the receiving school gets hit on the Bridge ratings. If you look at the top rated schools according to Bridge, most of them lose students to schools of choice. Consequently, the bottom performing schools tend to be the ones who have the most school of choice students. Because the Bridge analysis does not take the report card scores, it penalizes schools for accepting school of choice students. My guess would be that Greer actually loses students to Lindbergh through in district school of choice, and Lindbergh gets hit with the scores while Greer gets a bump. In actuality, both schools fair pretty well, with Greer scoring 87.8% in reading and 74.1% in math and Lindbergh scored 89.5% in reading and 84.4% in math. To say Greer outscored Lindbergh is just not factually accurate when one delves deeper into the data. Bridge needs to use the correct data because it is misrepresenting the actual results. These are available on under the scorecard summary.
Thu, 07/02/2015 - 10:51pm
its obvious the staff at geer park works twice as hard. They set high expectations for their students . The teachers at Lindbergh may have laxed a bit assuming their kids will preform well based on censure statistics .... White low poverty educated .
Mon, 06/13/2016 - 5:11am
"This creates an incentive to push out underperforming students because they can bump up their scores. Meanwhile the receiving school gets hit on the Bridge ratings." --- It sure did. My son was enrolled in his first year at Lindburgh last Fall, 2015. We chose to move to this particular district because of the great reputation Lindburgh used to enjoy as one of the best schools in Dearborn. Little did we know that it's principal, Ms. DaNeen, was behind the movement just two years prior, in 2013 (the same year as referenced by the M-tests in this article, coincidentally) which pushed to have all 'special needs' students removed from their home schools and placed collectively in one school - Snow Elementary, 'for the sake of having everything under one roof'. As our son has special needs that also comes with another, equally important special need- his ability to learn best by being included among typically developing peers, Lindburgh denied him and forced him in to Snow. Clearly, our child's welfare was the farthest thing on their minds. Getting the scores up, and perhaps even this article, were of more importance, even though in every modern statistic, having mixed classrooms benefit ALL students, neurotypical and special needs alike. Ms. DaNeen needs to re-educate herself on what makes for a good learning environment as noted in this article, she's hopelessly as lost as the student who's forever doomed as those who 'can't catch up on reading' past the third grade. What an utterly depressing outlook on the learning experience.