Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them.

Baxter Community School in central Iowa may be small, with preschool through 12th grade all under one roof, but it is also a top choice for those living in surrounding communities.

“As many as one-fourth of our population is open-enrolled into our district,” said Principal Jason Aker. “Those people choose to come to our district, for whatever reason, not their home district. So that’s always been a real positive for us.”

Baxter Elementary, serving grades kindergarten through five, was identified as comprehensive, one of 34 comprehensive in Iowa. These schools are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.

Baxter Elementary has met its comprehensive and targeted status within two years. Based on scoring outlined by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state average score for schools is 54.94. Baxter has an overall score of 57.51.

“I remember telling the staff when we got our comprehensive status, and there were a lot of shocked looks,” Aker said. “I think that’s why our jump happened as much as it did, because we were fully dedicated, we looked at it as an opportunity to improve. We worked very closely with the state and with our local [Area Education Agency], and just got to business as far as what we were going to implement.”

The school put an emphasis on planning time and professional development for teachers and extended the school day by 30 minutes, which they call “win time.”

As part of a new multi-tiered system of supports, that 30 minutes of win time rotates throughout the day, so each grade level has a specific win time in their day.

During that win time, the grade level has their two classroom teachers as well as the talented and gifted teacher, a reading teacher, and two paraprofessionals, which the school hired in the first year of comprehensive status.

“So how we did things is a little different. It’s not two teachers trying to work with 40 kids, it’s six teachers working with 40 kids, and really focusing on the specific needs of those kids,” he said.

Being a small, rural school helped Baxter Elementary to implement changes and see results quicker than a large school. But being small also has drawbacks.

“We’ve given that speedboat, tanker ship analogy. We’re a little speedboat. We can maneuver quicker, we can make changes quicker. We can set up systems, because we have less moving parts,” Aker explained. “The opposite of that, though, is we don’t necessarily have the resources that those bigger schools have.”

When a school receives a comprehensive designation, funding is put in place to help support changes, some of which can be implemented with one-time funding, but others, such as hiring paraprofessionals, cannot.

“When those dollars go away, then it becomes tough for our district to provide that again. We’re using that money to help pay for these salaries for people, and when that money goes away, we’re back to what we typically get, which isn’t as much as we all would like it to be,” he said. “So throw money at school improvement, and then you improve, and then we take all the money away, so where’s the sustainability piece to it?”

A common misconception is that all schools are the same, and these generalizations lead to incorrect beliefs, like thinking that schools are failing, he said.

“‘Thirty-four failing schools’ is a really crummy way of saying that, because the answer is simple; it’s the bottom 5 percent. So there will always be a bottom 5 percent. So if every school in the state scored 90 percent or higher, the bottom 5 percent of that 90 percent would still be considered comprehensive,” he said. “So it’s really a tragedy on some level to lump schools in there and say that they’re failing, because that is not the case.”

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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