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Our Kids Deserve Better

EGR: Lowest Middle School Special Ed in State.
Neglect earns Focus School Designations.

Data Sources
How to Read the Chart
  • The height of the bars represents the number of Michigan public districts
  • Each bar represents a percentage of special ed kids
  • Example: 41 Michigan public districts have Grade 6-8 special ed populations between 11% and 11.99%

Last year, EGR Middle School had the lowest special ed population of any public K-12 district in the state: 4.57%.

The state average for grades 6-8 in public K-12 schools is 13.54%. For 2012, EGR Middle School had 744 students, only 34 of whom were designated as special ed. EGR ranks dead last, by far. Having the lowest percentage in the state means the East Grand Rapids Public Schools is likely failing to identify and serve kids that need, and are legally entitled to receive, help.

East Grand Rapids Public School’s neglect of lower performing students recently earned it “Focus School” designations for both EGR Middle School and Lakeside Elementary.

The Michigan Department of Education gives the Focus School designation to the schools with the largest achievement gaps between the top 30% of students and the bottom 30% of students. The designation identifies schools whose high-achievers pump up average scores and mask significant problems with other student populations.

East Grand Rapids Middle School placed at about the 9th percentile in terms of size of the achievement gap (i.e., 91% of schools had a smaller achievement gap); Lakeside Elementary School placed at about the 7th percentile (i.e., 93% of schools had a smaller achievement gap.)

The State’s Focus School designation finally begins to shine a light on East Grand Rapids Public Schools’ failure to properly identify and serve struggling kids.

In EGR, we love to praise the champions, those who excel. But we have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that all students in East Grand Rapids receive a free and appropriate public education. Not just the highest-performing ones.

However, since 2006, the Shubel administration has decimated the number of kids identified as special education students, more than any other district in the state. If these kids aren’t identified and appropriately served, general ed teachers have to spend more time with students who should have additional supports. This impacts not just the struggling students, but everyone in the classroom, including the general population and gifted students.

The middle school’s dubious distinction of having the lowest special education population in the state isn’t the sole reason for its Focus School designation, but it’s likely a contributing factor. If the district is failing to identify and serve struggling kids, East Grand Rapids will continue to have Focus Schools.

How does Shubel Explain Focus Schools to Constituents?

In an August 17, 2012, letter to EGR school families, Shubel states:

“The state defines a ‘Focus school’ as a school where the achievement gap between the top scoring 30% of students and the lower scoring 30% of students is greater when compared to other schools in Michigan.”

That’s a terribly misleading statement, at best. At worst, it’s a blatant attempt to confuse parents and stakeholders on what the classification means.

In fact, if you search Google for that definition, the only place you’ll find it is in the letter to EGR school families; it doesn’t exist anywhere else. So, why would the administration make up it’s own definition and represent it as the State’s definition?

Look, the concept of Focus Schools is pretty simple. Focus Schools are the schools with the largest achievement gaps between the top 30% and the bottom 30%. The worst 10% of schools are designated Focus Schools.

Here’s what the State actually says (click link to download the State’s Focus Schools FAQs):

“Focus Schools are identified as the ten percent (10%) of Michigan schools having the widest gap in student achievement between their lowest and highest performing students. These schools have the greatest issues in supporting their lowest achieving students, whether their overall performance is high or low.”

“What Focus Schools have in common is that students in the bottom 30% within the school are performing at a level significantly below the top 30%.”

“It is clear that we cannot raise Michigan’s overall performance until we identify our lowest student achievers and change our practices in ways that enable them to succeed. The Focus School cohort represents the urgency of our commitment to make visible these students (even in relatively high-performing schools) whose needs are not being fully met, and to hold ourselves accountable for finding ways to help them succeed.”

What is East Grand Rapids Public Schools’ response to the Focus School designations?

In an August 17, 2012, letter to EGR school families, Shubel boldly claims, “the Focus school classification for the middle school and Lakeside elementary is unwarranted.” She says, “…the middle school and Lakeside elementary are doing better than 95% of schools in the state.” Shubel closes the letter by saying, “…we will continue to be in compliance with all state requirements; however, we have serious concerns regarding the new classification system imposed by the Michigan Department of Education.”

By contrast, Dan Takens, Superintendent of Byron Center Schools, strikes an entirely different tone in his letter to parents regarding its focus school. He accurately states what a focus school is, doesn’t complain about the new classification, doesn’t dispute the findings (even though Brown Elementary has an overall 95th percentile ranking), and assures parents he’s committed to closing the achievement gap.

What Does the District Say it will Do?

“As a consequence of the Focus school classification and the Title I funding that we receive, the middle school will need to comply with new state requirements.”

The letter goes on to say that middle school families have the (legally required) option of transferring to a school that is not on the State’s Focus school list, which would mean to a different district, since EGRPS only has one middle school. This has potentially significant financial implications. If a middle school student goes to another district, EGRPS has to permit that student to remain in the alternate school until the student completes the highest grade in that school; and the parents may well choose, through schools of choice or relocation, to keep that student in the alternate district through high school. That’s $50,000+ in lost revenue per student. Plus, EGRPS has to foot the bill to transport students to the alternate school.

Where is the Leadership?

  • Shubel’s August 17 letter wasn’t sent to convey what the district is going to do about things. The letter was sent because the district was legally required to inform parents by August 21 of their right to choose another middle school.
  • The letter is completely silent on what will be done regarding Lakeside School and East Grand Rapids Middle School. It doesn’t even say the district is going to look into possible reasons for the large achievement gaps. Rather, it says “…we have attached an overview of a sampling of middle school programs and services that are in place to support student achievement. We have similar programs throughout the school district that are focused on supporting student achievement.” In other words: We don’t believe the data; there’s nothing wrong; we have no plans to change.
  • Good leaders paint a vision. There was no vision in the letter, only denial and dismissiveness.
  • Good leaders don’t rationalize or ignore problems; they learn from them.
  • Good leaders adjust to the ever-changing playing field; they don’t complain about new rules.
  • Good leaders don’t underestimate or minimize competitors; they study and learn from them.
  • Good leaders are compensated for results, not effort. Shubel ends the letter with, “East Grand Rapids Public Schools [sic] FOCUS is and always has been to meet the learning needs of ALL students.” We don’t care about focus or effort. We care about results. You missed the mark. Get over it. Get on with it. Fix it. That’s what any competent board would say to the chief executive.

Shubel Administration Doesn’t get the Message.
Or doesn’t want to.

It doesn’t matter that East Grand Rapids Middle School and Lakeside Elementary School are doing better than 95% of schools in the state. The point is there is a huge gap between the top 30% of students and the bottom 30% of students. The district may be doing a good job with the top 30%, but bottom 30% are having a very different experience. The goal, the mandate, is to do a good job with everyone; that’s a large part of what a free and appropriate education is. The achievement gap shouldn’t be that big. Priorities and focus are out of whack. This should be a helpful wake-up call to re-examine things.

Yet EGR Public Schools, which boasts a “tradition of excellence,” responds with hubris. A district that boasts a tradition of excellence should look at the numbers and say, “Yes, it looks like we have a problem. Let’s figure out what it is and fix it.” Not claim the classification is unwarranted and attempt to obscure what the classification means.

The board and the administration are well aware of how out of step the district’s special education numbers are with the other districts in the state. They think nothing is wrong. Now, the State brings more hard data, showing the district is failing to identify and serve struggling kids. Their response? The same: We’re a great district; there’s nothing wrong.

And everyone wants to believe that.

Reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Our kids deserve better.

One Comment

  1. This is very discouraging. Perhaps if education was the most important responsibility of our Middle School Principal he would not be coaching varsity football with these type of problems in our district.

    In my judgement with this type of problem we should expect 100% concentration on the bigger problems within the Middle School

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