New Vassar superintendent Dorothy "Dot" Blackwell, outside Vassar High School.

State takes Vassar High off ‘priority schools’ list

New Vassar superintendent Dorothy "Dot" Blackwell, outside Vassar High School.
New Vassar superintendent Dorothy “Dot” Blackwell, outside Vassar High School.

Vassar High School students and staff have worked their way off the state’s list of “priority schools” — those in the bottom five percent of Michigan’s annual Top-to-Bottom School Rankings.
“My reaction is that this is outstanding,” said Dorothy “Dot” Blackwell, Vassar Public Schools superintendent, on Friday morning.
“Credit all the hard work from the staff,” Blackwell said. “They deserve it. They did a great job working with the kids.”
Vassar High School was placed on the list in the summer of 2014 due to declining scores on academic tests during a four-year period. That required school district leaders to adopt a reform plan. The Michigan School Reform Office has indicated it can force closure of chronically low-performing schools on the list.
Blackwell said Vassar High School has increased its percentile ranking on the list of state schools, but she noted on Friday morning that she couldn’t reveal the school’s new ranking, saying she had to wait until the state released the rankings Friday. Vassar High School’s new ranking wasn’t available as of press time.
About 360 students attend Vassar High School.
“No one wants to see their school ever be placed in the bottom five percent of the entire state of Michigan,” Blackwell said. “If you see your school listed there, it definitely has a huge impact on all of the staff, the teachers and the families of the community, because you’ve been placed on this arbitrary list stating that you are performing in the bottom five percent of the state.
“We knew in our hearts and we know every day that we work hard. We work hard with our kids and our kids are working hard, and we knew we did not deserve to be on that list.”
State officials note that schools move off the list by moving higher in the state’s annual percentile rankings of schools, by participating in at least 95 percent of required state assessments and by meeting annual measurable objectives for students in mathematics and reading.
“This actually shows the hard work — the teachers putting in the extra time and the kids actually also putting in extra time because we had to increase the educational time here in the classroom,” Blackwell said. “We’re seeing the fruits of our labor. The scores have gone up, we’ve fulfilled all the requirements and now we’re off the list.”
To exit the list, Vassar High School teachers needed to do extra work, Blackwell said.
“For all the years that we’ve been on the priority list we actually had to report … data about how our students are performing in every standard, at mastery,” Blackwell said. “Each of my teachers had to develop a test with questions specific to every single content standard and show if our students were at mastery or not at mastery.
“No other schools in the state besides priority schools have that requirement. So not only did my teachers have to do the compliance reporting of making plans, but we also had to do data work. We were required to have meetings about data. There was just a lot more accountability pieces that have been put on Vassar High School for the past three years.”
During the past few years, Vassar Public Schools staff also had to produce a pair of plans for improving the high school, Blackwell said.
“We had to actually produce data … and meet with the School Reform Office and put together two templates,” Blackwell said. “We did a transformation plan with the Michigan Department of Education, and once the School Reform Office moved out of the department of education and under authority of the state (Department of Technology, Management and Budget), we actually had to go again and write another reform plan to meet the requirements of the School Reform Office.”
By exiting the list of priority schools, Vassar High School rids itself of what Blackwell called a “stigma” associated with being on the list.
“You know as well as I know, that that stigma encompasses our entire family here at Vassar Public Schools,” Blackwell said. “Everybody needs to celebrate because it’s not just the high school. It’s a system. We had to make improvements in the system so that when our kids — when they do hit (high school) — they’re ready to perform.”
Media reports Friday indicated 79 schools — a record number — were removed from the list of priority schools.
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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