Next round of Priority, Focus Schools set by Dept. of Education

The Tennessee Department of Education has announced the newest round of Priority and Focus Schools, as well as school-level TCAP results.

Tennessee’s accountability system identifies three types of schools, as required by the U.S. Department of Education: Priority, Focus, and Reward Schools. Priority and Focus Schools are named every three years, and the first designation was in 2012. Priority Schools are the five percent of schools across the state with the lowest overall performance. Focus Schools are 10% of schools with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, regardless of overall performance. A complete list of 2014 Reward Schools (those with the highest overall performance or growth) was released on Aug. 21.

All three school-level accountability lists are preliminary, pending final approval by the State Board of Education on Aug. 26.

With the announcement of this year’s Priority Schools also comes an investment from the state of more than $7 million to support districts in turning around these lowest performing schools. Most of this money will go toward a competitive planning grant for districts that have Priority Schools. These districts will have one year to plan before their schools receive mandatory intervention, such as inclusion in the Achievement School District or a district-led ‘Innovation Zone.’ The state is also building an intensive, regional support team to help Focus Schools close achievement gaps.

“For the past several years, our state has been focused both on improving overall performance of all kids in Tennessee, while closing achievement gaps between historically low-performing groups of students and their peers. Our school accountability system aligns with these goals,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We’ve also made a significant financial investment in our lowest performing, or Priority Schools, and we’re starting to see signs of hope that this investment is paying off.”

After being named Priority and Focus Schools in 2012, the previously targeted schools made gains such as:
– Since being named Priority Schools in 2012, the 13 Shelby County schools in the district’s Innovation Zone have significantly outpaced the state’s growth in math and reading.

– The majority of Priority schools across the state outpaced the average state growth in elementary, middle, and high schools.

· Nearly 80% of Focus Schools had a smaller achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers than the state as a whole, after two years of work.

Huffman said he was pleased with the results from the first cohort, and hoped to see the newest round of Priority and Focus Schools continue to move students forward.

Register said leaders from the Priority schools and several different departments will work together to develop comprehensive plans based on every aspect of each school’s operation, including: curriculum, instruction, leadership, student assignment and central office support – and has already mobilized and challenged administrators to begin this work.

Two schools, John Early Museum Magnet Middle and Gra-Mar Middle, have made excellent progress and both came off the Priority list. Those schools’ strategies will be studied for use across the district and Gra-Mar’s former principal, Dr. Antoinette Williams, is now the executive director for middle schools working with schools district wide. Another positive for the district is the reduction in its number of Focus schools—down from 13 to nine from last year. Schools are included on the Focus list due to achievement gap issues. Overall, the district’s achievement gap is narrower than the state in all areas measured.

“This is hard work, but results from the first round of Priority and Focus Schools show us that it’s doable. We’ve seen signs of hope and that’s why we believe it is critical to continue investing in these schools,” Huffman said. “We know it is unacceptable to have entire schools where less than 20% of the students are proficient in reading and math, and we must, therefore, work aggressively to help turn them around.”