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.

Being a small school has its perks and its downsides.

On the one hand, a smaller school can be more flexible, a trait that has been even more helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fewer students mean smaller class sizes, more spacing between kids, and the ability to be in the classroom safely.

On the downside, when it comes to standardized testing, one student having a bad day has a much larger impact on the overall school than a student having a bad day in a large school.

“You’re taking 13 to 15 kids [in a grade level], so if one student doesn’t do well on those tests, it really drops your score down,” said Rob Brecht, principal at Essex.

Every grade level in Essex, from elementary through high school, is in one building. The elementary portion of the school, which includes grades kindergarten through fifth grade, is listed as comprehensive. However, it has met its comprehensive status within two years. The school’s current overall score is 63.68, nearly 10 points above the state average of 54.94. Despite still being on the comprehensive list, it is also listed as a high performing school.

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.

Being listed on opposite ends of the spectrum all at once is both a relief, since it shows how well students are growing academically, and a frustration, because “comprehensive” has a negative connotation, Brecht said.

“The common person, if they’re shopping around for a school, they’re going to jump on the internet and look it up,” he said. “If you’ve got a good label, everyone thinks your school is great. They might not know very much about your school, but they can just go to a website and judge you.”

Students in grades three to 11 take the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test. At Essex Elementary, that means third-, fourth- and fifth-graders take the test, and those grade levels have fewer than 20 students in each.

“We’re such a small district, they couldn’t score us in a lot of the other areas because you have to have 20 students or more [in a grade level] to get a weighting in that area. So if they couldn’t score in a certain area, they just tacked it on to growth,” Brecht said.

Overall in Iowa, 42.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. At Essex, that number is 65.8 percent. The school also has a higher percentage of students with disabilities, 21.1 percent, compared with 12.9 percent overall for Iowa.

The positive aspect to being a comprehensive school is that they get more resources and support. In the past, Essex has scored high enough that didn’t get any extra support, he said.

“Our [Area Education Agency] does a great job of serving local schools, but they have to allocate their resources to the biggest areas of need. So since we were doing so well, we didn’t really have a reading consultant that worked with us, or math consultant that worked with us,” Brecht said. “And now that we’re identified, we have a lot more support.”

That support comes from a school improvement support specialist, an Area Education reading consultant, and extra finances.

“For a small school like ours, having extra money to go to our kids’ education is great,” he said. “Staff went to a lot of trainings and had time to collaborate and meet as a team, and visit about how we could improve. That’s always our goal, to better serve our kids and be better at our craft.”

With extra funding comes strings tied to that funding, and sometimes it’s not clear exactly how that money can be spent. And since 2018-2019 was the first year for comprehensive designations under the Every Student Succeeds Act, it’s a new system for everyone, even the people at the Department of Education allocating the money, Brecht said.

Schools have to identify how they are going to use the money, and that what they are using the money on isn’t replacing a curriculum that is already in place. The school then submits a claim and a voucher to the state, which then approves it and allows the school to purchase the materials, he said.

“We can’t just say, ‘Oh, we found out that, hypothetically, our reading curriculum isn’t very good. So with this money we’re going to buy a reading curriculum for kids so it’s more aligned with the standards and all that,’” Brecht said. “You have to use it for supplemental stuff. You could look at your curriculum and find, ‘Oh, it’s not very strong in phonics.’ So you could buy a phonic program, but it can’t replace your main curriculum. We heard a lot of schools were using it to pay salaries, which is kind of a gray area.”

As the principal of one of 34 schools statewide designated as comprehensive, hearing Gov. Kim Reynolds and other lawmakers call them “failing schools” over and over this past year has been frustrating.

“So does that mean that we were horrible and all of a sudden we’re great in one year? Or that our elementary is horrible and our high school is awesome? You’ve got to label schools that way?” he said.

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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