When a school receives a designation like "Focus School," and when that designation is something brand new, there are bound to be some concerns — along with negative connotations.
That was the acknowledgement of Rochester Superintendent Fred Clarke, who explained the Focus School designation to Rochester Board of Education members on Monday night.
Focus Schools were identified earlier this month by the Michigan Department of Education as the 10 percent of schools with the widest academic disparity between the top 30 percent of students and the bottom 30 percent. There are two other categories, too: Reward Schools are the top five percent of all Michigan schools and the top five percent making the greatest academic progress; Priority Schools are the lowest achieving schools in the state.
Rochester does not have any Priority Schools; eight schools were labeled Reward Schools and nine schools were labeled Focus Schools.
(For more on our report of the rankings, read 8 Rochester Schools Named Reward Schools.)
Clarke on Monday said he was still trying to "get his hands around what it's all about," even after talking by phone to representatives from the MDE on Monday. He wasn't able to get any clear answers on the metrics used to categorize the schools; that's still to come in webinar presentations for school administrators, he said.
But here is what Clarke does know about Focus Schools:
- Rewards: Districts are encouraged to highlight their Reward Schools and, specifically, some of the promising practices that they use. "So when you get a chance and see staff or administration from those buildings, give them a nod or a pat on the back," Clarke said.
- So close: From what he can tell, Clarke said many other Rochester schools were very close to being on the Reward School list.
- Differentiation: Focus Schools are specifically based on an achievement gap. In response to questions he has heard from parents, Clarke said the Focus Schools will not be expected to "water down" their curriculum to help the lowest performing students in those schools catch up. "Absolutely not," he said. "We will continue to differentiate.
- Help for Focus: Focus Schools will be assigned a District Improvement Facilitator, also known as a "DIF." That person will assess the schools to see what, if anything, can be done differently to help close the achievement gap. Focus Schools will also have the option to identify 10 to 15 of the lowest-performing students and provide them with extra tutoring, mentoring, graduation coaches and outreach programs for their families.
- Transfer option: On Wednesday, letters will be sent to parents of students in some Focus Schools letting them know that they have the option to transfer to another, non-Focus School. Those schools are , , and elementary schools and Middle School. Those are the Focus Schools that qualify for federal Title 1 grant funding that will help pay for the transportation of the students to another school.
Geraldine Moore, the districts's assistant superintendent for instruction, noted that the district already has in place a "response to invervention" plan that addresses the achievement gap, and that in many cases, this gap was from 99 percent to between 70 and 75 percent.
"Focus does not mean failing," Moore said.
Rochester Board of Education member Gerald Moore expressed his concerns about that sentiment.
"To appear on the list really does tell a tale," he said. "All of the kids are not achieving at the same level. We've known for years that we've had this gap. We've got to figure out how to close the gap.
"Focus does not mean failure, but it is not to be downplayed."
Clarke said to remember the Focus School and other designations come from one school day in time, as the rankings are based on student performance on standardized tests.
"It is a concern, but it is not something we can't overcome," Clarke said.
See related story from Monday night's meeting: .