Instead of blaming public schools for poor academic performance, people should address underlying causes, Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said.
Blomstedt, Nebraska’s top education official, commented last week on his department’s release of annual school ratings.
The Department of Education rated 139 schools — about 13% of all public schools — in Needs Improvement, the lowest of four categories.
The state should help address the challenges of those schools, which included the Omaha Public Schools, he said.
“With a school district like OPS, or any school district that has substantial amount of poverty, they aren’t going to solve those challenges on their own,” Blomstedt said. “We’re going to have to be able to work with them. In many ways, that designation in OPS is not a designation on OPS but a designation on the state.”
OPS was the only district in the Omaha metro area to receive the state’s lowest rating.
But in a testament to the wide diversity within Nebraska’s largest district, an OPS elementary school achieved some of the highest proficiency levels in the state this year.
Columbian Elementary School, at 330 S. 127th St. in Omaha, rated Excellent and edged out the traditional powerhouse schools in the far-western suburbs of the metro area when it comes to overall proficiency in math, science and English language arts.
Last month, the school was named a National Blue Ribbon School for exemplary high performance.
About one-quarter of its students qualified for free or reduced price school lunches — a higher poverty share than a number of schools that Columbian scored above.
Poverty, while not an insurmountable obstacle to achievement, is a reliable predictor of test scores.
The state’s accountability system, for now, still weighs test scores most heavily in ratings. Officials say they want to tweak the system to put more emphasis on the progress a student makes each year.
OPS officials noted Columbian as a bright spot in otherwise static results that generally mirrored a lack of movement statewide.
At the district level, OPS English and math proficiency were unchanged. Thirty-three percent of OPS students scored proficient on the state’s English language arts test. Proficiency was 30% in math.
Science proficiency, 43% in OPS, was down 2 percentage points, the same dip as the state.
Statewide, math and English proficiency inched up 1 point.
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Scott SchmidtBonne, director of research at OPS, compared looking at the test results to stepping on the scale after exercising and hoping to see a different number.
“It’s always disheartening when it doesn’t move as much as you would want it to in the right direction, but we certainly see some things to sustain us and keep us moving forward,” he said. “But we definitely want to see higher performance and higher outcomes for our students.”
SchmidtBonne noted the performance at Columbian, Harrison and Wakonda Elementary Schools, as well as some positive results at high schools, including Omaha Central.
At Columbian, every fifth-grader was proficient on state science standards. That’s rare in the state. Only five elementary schools saw similar performance in science — Hitchcock in the Millard Public Schools was one of them.
Ninety-three percent of Columbian’s students were proficient in English language arts; in math, 91%.
Nanette Beller, who was principal at Columbian for seven years before retiring in June, credited “a lot of hard work” by the schoolteachers and staff.
The school day was structured to protect instruction “from bell to bell,” she said.
“Every single minute of the school day matters,” Beller said, “and we just focused on maximizing the time that we had with the students every single day.”
The lessons are tightly aligned to the state standards, and there’s a focus on high-quality instruction with proven best practices, she said.
Teacher innovation was welcome, but teachers focused on the content their students needed to learn, she said.
Harrison’s English language arts proficiency was 60%, up 10 points. Its math proficiency rose 19 points to 73%.
Wakonda’s scores rose, but the high-poverty school has a long way to go to match more affluent schools.
English proficiency climbed from 13% to 22%; math from 10% to 22%.
Eighty-nine percent of the school’s students qualify for subsidized school lunch.
At Omaha Central, where 55% of students qualified for free or reduced price lunches, proficiency rates on the junior-year state ACT exam were up across the board.
English language arts and science proficiency each gained a point to 45% and 43%, respectively. Math proficiency rose from 33% to 40%.
SchmidtBonne said OPS is happy to work with the state. He pointed to the district and state’s past partnership at Druid Hill Elementary as an example.
The elementary school at 4020 N. 30th St. was once designated as a state priority school, triggering state intervention. It was removed from priority status after state officials said it made sufficient progress.
“The best help they can provide is the help which is available to all districts,” SchmidtBonne said. “That’s to continue to communicate with us. Continue to solicit our opinions about those things which they can support us on that are challenging across the state.”
Blomstedt emphasized that raising achievement is not just up to the schools.
“The schooling work is really all of ours,” he said.
He said officials need to examine the achievement deficit for student groups and figure out what’s needed.
“Whatever that disadvantage is, we have to overcome that, but we have to overcome that together,” he said. “We have to do that with parents, communities, businesses and others as well.”
One new push for Nebraska this year involves closer scrutiny of the performance of student subgroups, for example racial, socioeconomic and special education subgroups.
Prompted by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, each state must flag schools with one or more consistently underperforming subgroups.
As a result, department officials are asking hundreds of Nebraska schools to develop a plan for improving achievement of those subgroups.
The most common subgroup flagged for low performance was special education students.
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.