Lee High School: A Tale of the Need for Equity

School Removed from Priority Schools List, But Needs Remain High

by Erin Albanese

Senior Travis Emmons looks up definitions in a dictionary
Senior Travis Emmons looks up definitions in a dictionary

Lee High School freshman Paul Villarreal wrote down his vocabulary words: “zest,” “campaigner,” “poliomyelitis” and “delegate” while in the Scholastic READ 180 classroom. The program, which blends online and teacher-led instruction, helps students become better readers.

“It has helped me to read in a lot of ways and understand words I didn’t know. It encouraged me to read at the level I need to be at,” said Paul, whose grades have increased as a result.

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools funded Scholastic READ 180 with a School Improvement Grant, allocated by the State of Michigan after Lee High School was designated a Priority School. The program now serves about 150 high-school students including 43 English-language learners.

In 2010, Lee was placed on the list of the lowest 5 percent of schools in achievement, according to the state’s Top-to-Bottom list rankings. Because of the designation, then called “Persistently Low-Achieving,” the district received the $2.1 million grant to start new programs and add staff. Results were positive, and the district was allocated another $900,000 in SIG funding in 2013.The state recently lifted Lee’s Priority School designation, following a span of four years during which the school saw a huge spike in achievement in standardized test scores and then another big drop. Superintendent David Britten pointed out the pattern: scores rose after SIG funding allowed for more programs and staffing, and then decreased again once funds ended and much of what had been added was eliminated.The timeline goes like this: By 2011, Lee High School students’ tests jumped to the 33rd percentile of Michigan schools. In 2012 and 2013, they scored 63rd and 56th, respectively. But SIG grant funding ended on Sept. 30, 2013, and last year, students placed in the 11th percentile.

Lee has been able to maintain some initially SIG-funded programs, like Scholastic READ 180, which teachers say continues to have a big impact.

“It has been a great program,” said Kim Plum, high-school reading specialist. “If they are not reading at grade level it makes social studies, science, language arts and math much more difficult. Our job is to increase vocabulary and reading ability so they can do better in all their core classes.”

The Burden of Poverty: A Backpack of Heartache is a continuing series on poverty in the schools and how it affects students’ learning. We will examine not only the problems poverty creates for students and their families, but the schools and strategies that are helping disadvantaged students succeed.

‘We Had Moved On’

Lee High School boost
The Scholastic READ 180 works to boost students’ reading ability and comprehension.

There’s a lot of good happening at Lee High School. The close-knit, small school was recently recognized for having one of the top graduation rates in the state, at more than 95 percent. It has been named one of the top high schools in the state, when poverty is factored in, according to the 2012 and 2014 Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. And enrollment has increased since 2002-2003 from 1,492 to 1,947 today as families, many Hispanic, choose Godfrey-Lee as their district of choice.

But high-poverty schools face complex needs, and in Godfrey-Lee, which this school year enrolled 1,947 students, 38 percent of students live below the federal poverty line, the highest in Kent County; 95 percent receive free or reduced-cost lunch; and 34 percent of students are classified as having limited English proficiency, the second highest in the state.

Britten said there is much irony in what has occurred since the 2010 designation, from how being labeled “failing” allowed students to “succeed,” to how funneling money to the high school didn’t address needs at Lee Middle School and its two feeder elementary schools.

Britten said he wasn’t expecting the notification that State Superintendent Mike Flanagan removed Lee High from its designation as a priority school.

“It surprised us. We had forgotten all about it. We had moved on,” Britten said, noting district leaders submitted their final report to the state in September 2013 concerning the designation.

The SIG grant allowed Britten to put in place things that had long been on his wish list, resources school leaders knew were needed to turn the school around academically.

“Just about everything we wrote into the SIG grant were things that we wanted to do but didn’t have money to do,” he said.

Despite the added money, district finances were still stretched thin, so the new programs and staffing had to be supplemented with money from the district’s operating budget. Cuts were made in other areas.

“We had to cut a lot of other stuff,” Britten said. “The second year of the grant I didn’t even hire a high school principal. I did it myself. I was superintendent and principal at Lee High/Middle and East Lee (the district’s alternative high school), just to save money to sustain these programs. It’s very expensive.”

More Equitable System Needed

Lee High School freshman Paul Villareal studies vocabulary words.
Lee High School freshman Paul Villareal studies vocabulary words.

Britten was one of the first educators to write about the strong correlation between students’ family income levels and achievement. (See School News Network Article)

He said students at Godfrey-Lee are hardworking and capable of learning, but face greater barriers to success, often starting two to four years behind more affluent students.

For sustained school improvement to occur, he said, funding must be allocated more equitably. Though the SIG money was beneficial for the high school, the real problem high-poverty schools face is systemic, starting in early elementary school.

“The problem is primarily in the middle school and its feeder elementary schools,” he said. “Our middle school and (third- through fifth-grade) elementary are rated very low in the state, even when poverty is taken into account, compared to the high school.

“We haven’t fixed any of the issues we are wrestling with.”

According to a press release from the Michigan Department of Education, Lee High School was among 27 schools removed from Priority School status.

“The 27 schools are among the first schools placed in Priority School status, back in 2010,” the press release states. “Since then, the schools have established and implemented school redesign plans that took them out of the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state’s Top-to-Bottom list; met their academic growth objectives in math and reading; and met the required 95 percent student participation rate on the state assessments.”

“This is evidence that low-achieving schools can, and do, improve,” said Superintendent Mike Flanagan in the release. “Every child wants to learn, and every child can learn. The key is finding the best strategies to help them, and staying focused on them.”

What the School Improvement Grant Funded

Scholastic READ 180, a blended online and teacher-led reading program
Three academic coaches from the Institute for Educational Excellence to work in leadership, math and language arts, in classrooms with teachers
A new teacher-evaluation mode, using results that fed into professional development planning
Merit pay for school, leaders, teachers and staff
Eight days of professional development tailored to the district’s needs
A new algebra curriculum that included Algebra Camp and technology equipment
Bi-weekly teacher collaboration built into the school day
An extended school year from 168 to 177 days
Support services and staff including a freshman advocate to serve the unique needs of ninth-graders, and a 10th-grade adviser

Changes Since SIG-Grant Funding Ended

Literacy and data coaches discontinued. The district hired the math coach directly using other district funds and retained the leadership coach for just 20 days this past year.
Merit pay was discontinued
Additional SIG-funded professional development was discontinued
Algebra Camp was discontinued
The extended school year for high school students was discontinued, although the entire district was eventually increased to 177 days during contract bargaining. The added cost was absorbed by the district.
The 10th-grade adviser was discontinued, but reassigned as full-time high school guidance counselor due to the retirement of a part-time counselor. The added cost was absorbed by the district.