SCHUYLER -- Last week Schuyler Community Schools received welcome news, said Superintendent Dan Hoesing.

Schuyler Central High School was approved as a “priority school,” by the Nebraska Board of Education. The school was chosen from among the lowest-performing schools in the state's classification system. The approval brings intervention from the state.

Hoesing said he and school administrators didn’t have a problem with the approval, and in fact it was their goal to be chosen.

But in the process, Hoesing said, Nebraska Board of Education officials made some misstatements about the school’s situation. He and Dave Gibbons, director of teaching and learning, were eager to provide some clarification on issues that are fairly complex.

In recent weeks, he said staff members at the school met to discuss the priority status. The school was one of several that state officials visited “because of our willingness to cooperate and put into place model programs that can be replicated in other school districts,” Hoesing wrote in an email interview.

However, news reports stated that the district was targeted, when that wasn’t the case.

“What was presented as an opportunity, was reported as more of a punitive measure, leaving our school and students negatively impacted,” Hoesing said. “The news release included quotes of statistics taken out of context. I am not sure why this is reflected in such a different light, but I believe the commissioner and deputy commissioner used pieces of data to sell our designation to the State Board of Education.”

Improving attendance

Among the issues with the discussion was the department citing a chronic absenteeism rate of 16 percent.

“Reporting our truancy rate is not that difficult,” Hoesing wrote. “We need to understand how the department of education is calculating their numbers, so that we can either confirm their report or provide accurate data that is more than a sound bite taken out of context. Where the complexity enters is where we are counting the number of students who, according to our policy, have unexcused absences.”

“If we remove those absences that were legitimate, excused absences, the chronic absenteeism rate reduces to about 6 percent of our students. Also, for the 2016-2017 school year, our average daily attendance at the high school was 92.6 percent,” the email said.

Schuyler schools weren’t dodging the issue, Hoesing wrote.

“It should be noted as well that we have recognized that, regardless of the numbers used, we have an issue with truancy. That is why we have a truancy officer working with our middle and high school students and families for the past three years,” he wrote.

Other published reports noted that the state used the definition of chronic absenteeism as any student who has missed school for any reason for more than 18 days, however, state law (79-209.c) puts the number at 20 days.

Wrote Hoesing: “If we count the number of students absent for any reason for more than 20 days, it is 14 percent.”

Funding use changed after costs ran high

“Some of the comments and figures that were not accurate include comments from the education commissioner that stated that we returned federal funds to be used for professional development. That statement is misleading and inaccurate,” Hoesing wrote. “No federal funds were released.”

He said that the district was said to have not spent some of its Title III funds on professional development. The funds are intended to be used for improving the education of English learners by helping them attain English proficiency, attain high levels of academic achievement in English and meet challenging academic standards, as well as providing enhanced instructional opportunities for immigrant children and youth.

Last year the school received and spent $81,000 to hire a teacher and creating additional courses for limited English students, district wide summer school course offerings for those students and supplementary program materials for our elementary students.

“A plan for professional development was in place, but the costs ran higher than originally planned so we worked with the state department of education’s Title III office to re-allocate those funds and write a professional development plan,” Hoesing wrote. “That plan is in place this year with the approval of the state Title III office. So, it isn't like we threw away professional development funds, we just needed to revamp our plans.”

Hoesing wrote that it was “disingenuous” of the department to say the grant was unsuccessful. Part of the confusion is the measure to define success. The school is in the second year of a five year grant.

“We have seen an increase in the use of powerful instructional strategies and we have seen an increase in student engagement,” Hoesing wrote. “We remain excited about the gains to be realized over the remainder of the grant. This priority designation could put additional support to the work currently in place in our high school.”

Long term approach

Hoesing was asked to describe the school district’s approach to improvement.

“Four years ago, Schuyler Community Schools applied for and received a three-year school improvement grant at the middle school, grades six through eight. The positive results at the middle school encouraged us to apply for a five-year school improvement grant for the high school (9-12). At the middle school, the grant focused on improving student academic achievement, learning climate, and staff professional development. One of the requirements of the grant was to replace the middle school principal.

"In the final year of the middle school grant, the high school leadership team recommended they apply for a school improvement grant to continue the growth realized at the middle school. We had just replaced the high school principal, so with this grant application, the recent change in the principal position, allowed us to receive the five-year grant with current administration in place. The high school grant focused on improving academic performance, attendance, graduation rates, post secondary college access and improved learning climate.

"The discussion about the priority designation was to be able to secure financial support, professional development, and programs to help us meet the needs of all students in our high school as well as the diverse needs of our most challenging student population.

Goals behind the work

Hoesing described the goals behind seeking priority status.

”While we provide a competitive curriculum including access to dual and college credit classes for our juniors and seniors, we need more resources to support instruction to bridge the gap for students with limited English or academic skills often associated with the level of education or access to education as new arrivals. From our conversation with Department of Education officials, we felt the ‘support’ they were offering were benefits to impact our most dependent learners.

"We have proven that we are willing to do whatever it takes to improve student achievement and increase opportunities for learning in our district. We are still hopeful that the state will come in and work with us to develop and implement a plan that complements the actions that we are already taking and helps us monitor that plan.”