School corridor with lockers. (iStock image)

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.

In Durant, keeping the big picture in mind while improving the fundamentals is helping to keep the eastern Iowa town’s schools running smoothly and the heart of the community strong.

“Part of being a small community is that the school is kind of the hub of the district, or of the community. The school is the thing that keeps it all together,” said Rebecca Stineman, principal at Durant Elementary School, which is listed as one of 34 comprehensive schools statewide. The school has met its comprehensive status, with an overall score of 54.85. The statewide average is 54.94.

Iowa’s 34 comprehensive 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.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools were shut down in March 2020, that core piece of Durant was missed. Outreach from the school district, like giving out lunches or posting videos online, was important to students and their families.

Local schools functioning as the hearts of their communities is a common theme in small town Iowa, and for many, the pandemic highlighted just how important they are. But other things, like school choice legislation at the Statehouse, showed how easy it could be to erode those community ties, educators and lawmakers said.

“Enrollment, especially in a small rural district, at any time and for any reason, is something we need to worry about,” Stineman said. “In any given year we have a decline. We’re very centrally located between Davenport, Muscatine and Iowa City, and so at any given time a parent could say ‘I’m going to take my kid to work with me every day in Iowa City and go somewhere else.’ I think the school choice thing would be devastating for any school. It leaves a lot of scenarios that schools have to plan for, and not just the monetary ones. … That whole idea becomes a much bigger question of what education is turning into and what we have to plan for.”

Especially in a rural district, if parents choose to send their children to another school, the district has to examine the driving factors, whether they are convenience, academic, or athletically driven, she said.

Durant was never sanctioned under the No Child Left Behind’s list of Schools in Need of Improvement in the past.

When results from the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test landed Durant Elementary on the Every Student Succeeds Act’s list of comprehensive schools in the 2018-2019 school year, school leaders considered the possibility that it happened almost because the school is so small.

At that time, the elementary school building had children through grade four, and many of the schools it is scored against have children through grade five or six. Durant is also a small town, which means one student’s performance has more of an impact on the overall score than that of one student at a larger school.

After the comprehensive listing, school administrators decided to move fifth and sixth grade to the elementary building. After the move, staff worked with their Area Education Agency to firm up the school’s English Language Arts program, and implement professional development for teachers.

“We’re seeing the vast majority of our students making growth,” Stineman said.

This spring, FAST (Formative Assessment System for Teachers) testing data showed that 62.9 percent of students at the elementary school made expected growth and more than 96 percent of students made some sort of growth, despite being interrupted by the pandemic.

Other numbers are even more encouraging.

“We have our post-secondary where 80 percent of Durant graduates go on to a secondary enrollment compared to 66 percent in the state, and then 94.6 percent of Durant students continue the second year of college compared to 90 percent statewide,” said Maria Brown, curriculum director at Durant Elementary.

Student achievement growth shows that the changes the school has implemented is having a positive impact on learning. But, despite that growth, the conversation labeling comprehensive schools as “failing” by lawmakers is frustrating for educators.

“As schools, it’s important for us to keep sight of improvement, and how we’re doing and to measure that,” Stineman said. “Schools shouldn’t be that political thing. … The purpose of ESSA was that was not supposed to be punitive, so then to have a voucher [bill in the Capitol], to us that’s very punitive, especially when we are really turning things around and making great gains.”

ESSA accountability measures are tools for looking at academic performance, and then giving resources and support to the schools who need it most, she said.

“I keep thinking about how we address our students. When we have a student that hasn’t met the right criteria, we don’t call them failing students. We call them a student who needs some help,” Stineman said. “The whole concept of using ‘failing’ sets the wrong tone.”

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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