The federal hammer is poised to fall on three Nebraska schools — two in Lincoln, one in Omaha — that have failed to meet No Child Left Behind testing benchmarks for six straight years.
Federal penalties will require Everett and Elliott Elementary Schools in Lincoln and Indian Hill Elementary in Omaha to choose one of five restructuring options intended to raise test scores and achievement levels. Schools must put the plans into practice next year.
The three schools fall under year five of not meeting federal “adequate yearly progress” targets on state tests.
A school that misses the targets two years in a row is labeled “in need of improvement.” Once a school that receives federal Title 1 funds hits year five — or the sixth straight year of missing targets — it must pick a corrective strategy.
The Nebraska schools are in relatively uncharted territory. Everett, Elliott and Indian Hill are the first schools in the state to miss the targets six years in a row and face the heaviest federal sanctions.
The leadership team writing the restructuring plan for Indian Hill at times sought guidance from other states where districts have had years to work on revamping schools.
“This is definitely new ground for Omaha Public Schools,” said ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
At Indian Hill in South Omaha, administrators aren't turning to any of the more extreme options to transform the school, which has kindergarten through sixth grade.
Those options include replacing all or most of the staff, including teachers and the principal; bringing in an outside agency to operate the school; becoming a charter school; allowing the state to take over; or “any other major restructuring” that involves reforms meant to boost achievement.
Two of those options were always off the table: Nebraska law doesn't allow for state takeovers or the establishment of charter schools. But OPS officials said firing and replacing most of the staff and removing Principal Sharon Royers were never part of the conversation either.
Instead, Indian Hill will choose the restructuring plan option — a popular choice for many districts with little taste for dismantling a school or turning the keys over to a private contractor.
Royers chafes at the “failing school” label, saying Indian Hill has posted double-digit percentage growth in some testing categories.
Rising targets for No Child Left Behind for 2012-13 required 89 percent of elementary students to score proficient in reading and 84 percent in math. For 2013-14, 100 percent of students are expected to be proficient in math or reading, meaning they demonstrate basic understanding of state standards for those subjects as judged by mandatory statewide tests.
Only 54 percent of Indian Hill students scored proficient in reading and 45 percent in math on state tests last year. Still, math scores have increased by 9 percentage points since 2010-11 and reading scores by 12 percentage points over a four-year period. Fifth-graders in particular have made strong gains.
“We've been mislabeled — that's how we feel,” Royers said. “We are a successful school.”
Indian Hill teachers and administrators are in the process of drafting the restructuring plan, which will be submitted to the state for approval in January.
The improvement plan includes strategies such as shifting the school's governance by giving teachers and parents a larger leadership role, increasing instructional coaching sessions for teachers, holding meetings every six weeks to compare student data and select children who need the most extra help, and scheduling weekly classroom observations by Royers and her assistant principals.
The school has already implemented many of these strategies, but they will become mandatory under the restructuring, Kehrberg said.
Diane Stuehmer, the Nebraska Department of Education's federal programs administrator and Title I director, said the state gives the schools some leeway to define “restructuring.”
“They really have a lot of flexibility in what they can do,” she said.
OPS is expected to gain more practice with restructuring plans in coming years. Twenty-one OPS schools are currently in year three of not meeting targets and are expected to continue falling short.
Lincoln Public Schools have some experience with more aggressive sanctions, having removed Elliott Elementary School's longtime principal in 2010 to apply for a chunk of federal school improvement money.
This year, officials will work to stabilize Elliott's staff, which has seen high turnover, through increased professional development, instructional coaches and classes that will help teachers develop strategies to meet the demands of Elliott's diverse, high-poverty student population.
At Elliott, 72 percent of students scored proficient in reading and 74 percent in math on state tests last year.
“We're not tearing the school apart, but strengthening it from within,” said Deila Steiner, Lincoln's director of federal programs.
At Everett, which has a large group of Spanish-language students, the district will try to attract more bilingual teachers and enhance its family literacy program by creating community mentors for new parents.
Last year, 66 percent of students scored proficient in reading and 60 percent in math on state tests.
These mentors — parents who have already been enrolled in the program — will help new parents understand the curriculum and learn how to help their child succeed in the classroom.
Literacy program parents will be required to spend two hours each week in the classroom.