Call Ardrey Kell High a successful school and few who know Charlotte would argue.
Say the same about Ranson Middle School and brows may furrow.
Ardrey Kell is in south suburban Ballantyne, where strong public schools are a selling point for families with money and college ambition. It tends to top the test-score lists for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
At Ranson, in north Charlotte, most students come from low-income homes. When the state made exams tougher last year, most Ranson students failed.
But two measures newly available to the public suggest that both schools are helping their students make strong academic gains, even though those students started at different levels and face different challenges.
“This has leveled the playing field,” said Ardrey Kell Principal David Switzer.
Those reports bring some surprises. Ranson is a case in point.
When 2013 exam results were revealed in November, the school had an overall pass rate of 27.1 percent. “We were heartbroken,” said Principal Alison Harris.
But the February teacher effectiveness ratings provide a counterpoint: More than 90 percent of Ranson’s teachers at least met the growth goal, and 41 percent exceeded it, well above state and CMS averages. The school growth database shows that Ranson students averaged far more than a year’s growth, landing among the top 10 schools in CMS.
It seems counterintuitive that a school where most students fail could earn top marks. But growth and teacher ratings look at where each student started and ended the school year. For instance, a student whose reading skill tested at a fifth-grade level in seventh grade and a seventh-grade level at the end of eighth grade would get credit for two years’ growth, even though that student remains below grade level.
As people might expect, some Charlotte-area suburban schools with strong reputations rate among the state’s best. Educators say that’s a sign that they’re not just cruising with students who come well-prepared but are helping those students keep learning.
“If your child walks in my door at the 99th percentile, it’s still my responsibility to help them grow,” said Jamie Brooks, principal of south suburban Community House Middle.
But suburban locations and high-scoring students do not guarantee success. The lowest growth ratings in CMS went to Hopewell High in Huntersville, Polo Ridge Elementary in Mecklenburg’s southern tip, J.V. Washam Elementary in Cornelius and Davidson Elementary. Students at Irwin Academic Center, a magnet for gifted students, logged well below a year’s growth on the 2013 exams.
In those cases, administrators and teachers must plot new strategies.
Hopewell, for instance, got a new principal in December. Dino Gisiano has made “huge strides” with discipline, which sets the stage for academic success, and is helping teachers figure out how to get better results this year, said Dawn Robinson, the administrator who oversees Hopewell. The faculty fell well below district and state averages on teacher effectiveness, with less than half meeting the state goal for student gains.
“Before we can say ‘You’re not cutting it’ based on that data, we have to provide the skills and tools they need,” Robinson said.
Using the numbers
North Carolina’s reliance on student test scores to rate schools and teachers is controversial, though many states are doing the same.
Critics across the political spectrum say the push to create exams for teacher ratings has spawned excessive testing.
There are also other concerns. Many things outside a teacher’s control, from student motivation to family circumstances, can help or hinder a student’s performance. But the state says a complex formula that looks at each student’s prior scores can account for those factors and give a reliable rating of which teachers consistently help students learn more – or less – than past performance would predict.
One of the biggest challenges across the country is getting top teachers into schools where poverty levels are high and test scores are persistently low.
“The more challenged the school, the tougher it is for the principals to recruit and retain the most high-performing teachers,” said Bill Anderson, a former CMS principal who leads the advocacy group MeckEd. “This has been the case for decades.”
An Observer analysis of this year’s teacher ratings indicates that CMS schools with lower poverty levels were somewhat more likely to have top-rated teachers. In schools where fewer than 40 percent of students qualified for lunch subsidies, almost 29 percent of teachers earned the top rating, compared with 17 percent in schools with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher.
But the numbers also highlight promising efforts to break that pattern.
Project LIFT promise
About two years ago, Charlotte-area philanthropists announced a five-year, $55 million quest to boost student achievement at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, including Ranson.
Last year that effort, called Project LIFT, contributed millions to recruit top educators and help them to reach more students. An Observer analysis of teacher effectiveness ratings shows those schools, which have long been among the lowest-performing in CMS, were more likely than other high-poverty schools in the district to have top-rated teachers.
“It’s a proof point that the work that we’re doing is beginning to pay off,” said Denise Watts, the administrator in charge of the Project LIFT schools.
CMS used the private money to offer hiring bonuses of up to $10,000, with the biggest sums going to teachers with a track record of boosting test scores.
Project LIFT also hired its own recruitment specialist and has aggressively searched for teachers with the skills and desire to work in urban schools. “We sell the mission and vision before we put the money out there,” Watts said.
The next step, just starting to play out at Ranson and a handful of other LIFT schools, involves identifying the most effective teachers and giving them new jobs that let them reach more students and guide other teachers. Those “opportunity culture” jobs, which will spread to 17 more CMS schools in 2014-15, come with big pay raises.
Ranson math teacher Romain Bertrand now coaches six other math teachers. He also works with students in small groups, records podcasts and plans interactive online activities. For 2014, his rating will be based on the performance of 800 sixth- and seventh-graders.
“It keeps me up at night sometimes,” Bertrand said, “but it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
Superintendent Heath Morrison said growth is one of the most important pieces of data about any school. But the growth and teacher ratings won’t have much credibility, he said, unless larger numbers of students eventually pass exams.
Watts agrees: “Our kids need two or three years of great teachers in a row.”
“We are proud of the success,” said Ranson Principal Harris, “but we have work to do.”
Learning from success
Eventually the state may create a pay system that rewards teachers for high ratings. For now, educators say the best use of the data is to identify successful schools and teachers and help others learn from them.
Harold Winkler Middle School in Concord earned the highest growth rating among North Carolina’s 2,405 schools. All its teachers met the state goal for effectiveness, and more than half exceeded it.
Winkler, a racially and economically diverse school that opened only three years ago, is part of a state pilot program that provides money and advice on helping teaching teams work together, said Principal Mary Beth Roth. Roth said her school also uses strategies developed at the University of Kansas to help students who are behind grade level in reading and math.
Team planning is also the key at Ardrey Kell, which got the highest growth rating in CMS, said Switzer, the school’s principal. He encourages all departments to create their own tests to be used by all teachers in the same subject. The teachers review results together to see how students are doing and plan follow-up.
That requires that “we leave our egos at the door, which is a hard thing to do as a teacher,” said Shawn Stallsworth, one of two experienced educators teaching English II at Ardrey Kell. She and department chair Patricia Nowacky work with two newer teachers and a student teacher.
Sharing strategies and comparing results “alleviates a lot of that anxiety that first-year teachers have,” said Rochelle Siciliano, a second-year teacher.
The teachers swap ideas for making Greek mythology, Hebrew literature and Shakespeare relevant to teens’ lives and for working in the nonfiction pieces required by the new state and Common Core standards. “We have a common goal, and we have decided we achieve it better together than separately,” Nowacky said.
The school takes pride in test scores. Not only do teachers analyze data on a regular basis, but students are required to track their own data in notebooks.
But tests are never the primary goal, teachers and administrators say. That comes when graduates succeed in college or the workforce.
“They’re teaching all the students to be analytical and critical thinkers,” said Assistant Principal Yolanda Burnette.