Low-performing schools throughout Michigan have to turn in transformation plans to the state that show how they will improve. They are due Monday. Forty-five schools were identified by the state's School Reform Office in January. Betsie Valley Elementary in Thompsonville is one of two schools in northern Michigan on the list of schools. The other school is Bear Lake High School in Manistee County.
Low-performing schools are determined by the state based on how students do on the state’s standardized test – the M-STEP. The state lists schools from best-to-worst performing. The bottom five percent are considered Priority schools.
This is Betsie Valley Elementary's first time on the list.
"I guess for a while we kept thinking this can’t possibly be correct," says Amiee Erfourth, the principal at Betsie Valley.
Erfourth is sitting in her office with Matt Olsen, the district superintendent of Benzie Central Schools.
"It was a surprise, because – quite frankly – we’ve always been quite proud of our academics here in Benzie Central," says Olsen.
Calculating the bottom five percent
Neither of them think they belong on the Priority list, and they're frustrated with their Priority status for a couple of reasons. For one, Betsie Valley is a small school with 140 students. Less than half the student body’s test scores were used to calculate their spot on the Priority list.
"So that was kind of a small sample size we thought," says Erfourth.
Erfourth and Olsen say last year came with specific challenges.
"We had just a small group of kids that struggled in a particular area," Olsen says.
That particular area was math.
But an official at the Michigan Department of Education – which ranks schools in the state – says their calculations are fair.
Superintendent Olsen says no school or district wants to be on the priority list. He says there’s a stigma attached to it.
"A person would perceive – that doesn’t know the school – that it must not be a great school," Olsen says. "And that’s just not us. That’s not our story."
On a national test – the NWEA – the number of Betsie Valley students that met or exceeded their growth targets in reading increased from 43 to 69 percent since 2014. In math, they increased from 26 to 48 percent.
Priority school's four options
Once a school is on the Priority list, they have to choose one of four options: 1) Close the school, 2) close the school and reopen it under new management, 3) come up with a plan to transform the school and 4) do option three and fire and replace at least 50 percent of the staff.
"I kind of bristle a little bit when someone says, ‘well, there’s four options,'" says Olsen. "There’s not really four great options."
Let's say his district had decided to choose option one and closed the school. There are four elementary schools in the district, and one of them is closing in June.
"We’re a 350 square-mile rural district," Olsen says. "All of a sudden the options for kids in the Thompsonville [and] Copemish region become very limited and very distant. And so is that really helping those kids? Or is it a better thing to make the school better?"
He says most schools choose to get better. That’s what Betsie Valley is doing. Their transformation plan is due Monday.
Transforming the school and the resources to make it happen
The state requires schools to outline a number of things. For example, they must identify two or three big ideas they'll pursue to improve, and they need to show how are they're using data to make decisions.
"The irony is, though, that Betsie Valley was already taking lots of steps," says Olsen. "Writing our plan was really not very hard."
"We already are doing interventions," says Principal Erfourth. "We’re already using data to make decisions. We’re already supporting our kids with tiered levels of intervention for reading and math."
But another requirement for schools is to identify incentives for teachers who are increasing student achievement.
"To which I look at them and say, ‘with what?’" says Olsen.
And that’s another reason they’re frustrated.
"The bottom line is we’re also resource poor," Olsen says, "and if you’re saying a school is struggling, there is a degree of, we need to put our money where our mouth is ... At this point, I have not seen a check come in the mail."
The Michigan School Reform Office supervises Priority schools. After repeated requests for an interview, they declined to comment for this story. But one of their documents from a few years back says:
The same document says the state will provide resources like free access to information and training, which Superintendent Olsen says is important.
Olsen and Erfourth may disagree with their Priority status, but they do say it’s motivating.
"Even when something may not be entirely true or the full story ... we know that we had a struggling group of students," Olsen says. "That means that we have work to do with those students, and we have work to do overall."
"Our work is never done, and we always want to be better," she says.
As a Priority school they have to report to the state regularly. They’re given four years to improve and get off the list. If they don’t, the state could decide to close the school.
Betsie Valley’s Priority status officially begins this September.
Correction: A previous version said the other Priority school in northern Michigan was in Manistee. It's in Manistee County.