The first report cards Decatur City Schools received from the State Department of Education showed a challenge that has existed for at least a decade in the district: Educating children who live in poverty.
State officials did not assign letter grades as required by a 2012 law sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, because data for some indicators is incomplete. The state instead last week released district and school scores for several performance indicators.
But Decatur schools with the highest poverty rates performed the worst in learning gains and student achievement, which are two indicators linked to the ACT Aspire exam students took in the spring.
Superintendent Dan Brigman said the district can’t solve the city’s poverty issue, but it can immerse students in an extended learning environment and put them in real-life situations they otherwise wouldn’t experience.
He said Decatur City Schools is also working with teachers to help them better understand the challenges students living in poverty face.
“This is going to take some additional resources, but this is what we have to do,” Brigman said.
West Decatur Elementary — which has an almost 100 percent poverty rate — was the only school in the district that did not show progress at any grade level on Aspire, and its report card scores were the lowest.
In student achievement in reading, for example, 56 percent of students statewide were proficient and the district number was 53 percent. West Decatur’s proficiency score was 25 percent.
Some of these numbers didn’t surprise district officials because more than half of the students at West Decatur have been in classes to address English proficiency.
Brookhaven, which has the highest poverty rate among Decatur’s three middle schools, also struggled with student achievement in reading and math. The math proficiency rate was 25 percentage points below the state average, while only 32 percent of the school’s students were proficient in reading.
A nonprofit Birmingham consulting firm, which annually analyzes how students in Decatur City Schools are performing, said in April that “poverty continues to be the overriding issue” contributing to the district's low test scores.
The report included graphs that compared how students living in poverty performed on the ACT Aspire during the 2014-15 school year, compared to those not in poverty. In math, for example, only 9.3 percent of the district’s eighth-grade students in poverty scored at the proficient level. The percentage for non-poverty students was 40.3 percent.
Rachel Poovey, Decatur City Schools' elementary education supervisor, said the district has changed how elementary schools use class time to address student performance and will be taking similar steps in the middle schools.
She said teachers will go through a three-day training session this summer to help them recognize and target specific areas where students are struggling.
“We’re meeting children where they are,” Poovey said.
State Superintendent Michael Sentance has said letter grades will be issued in December 2017, in accordance with the law Collins sponsored.
Administrators in the six public school districts in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties have pushed back against letter grades because they said a single grade will not reflect all that’s happening in schools.
Collins said another component that will account for 10 percent of the letter grade should address concerns from superintendents. She said a category called “student engagement” will give school districts the opportunity to factor in non-academic areas such as robotics, spelling clubs, athletics and violin programs.
“This is a great quality indicator,” Collins said.