Fourteen kids, each with more than 15 absences.
Three school years ago.
That simple math put Bryan County Middle School on the AYP Needs Improvement list in 2007, a place it stayed despite the school’s consistent passing of the academic portion of the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements.
Principal Deborah Hamm acknowledged it was frustrating to get tagged as a Needs Improvement school for such a reason.
"We shed a lot of tears over it, I can tell you that," she said. "AYP is not a bad thing, but it can be a bad thing when you get caught in a Catch 22, when academics aren’t really a problem but you’re on the Needs Improvement list and the community doesn’t really understand why."
Those days are behind BCMS. Making AYP for the second year in a row in both academics -- which are based on CRCT test scores from the previous spring, in this case, 2008 -- and in attendance means BCMS is off the Needs Improvement list for the first time since 2006.
The achievement earned the school congratulations at a recent school board meeting held at BCMS, as teachers Julie Howard and Tiffany Hursey explained how the school turned its attendance problem. They also explained how the school upped its focus on academics.Howard, a curriculum resources specialist, and Hursey, a tech specialist, took a leading role in the three-year effort to get BCMS off the Needs Improvement list -- though Hamm noted it also involved all the staff.
"We have a dedicated staff of teachers and paraprofessionals and I would put them up against anyone, anywhere," she said. "They really go the extra mile to meet the needs of their students."
In essence, going the extra mile meant the school tackled the AYP challenge from a number of angles.
Those ranged from making sure teachers were on the same page to identifying and then working with kids who might be in trouble. There are now leadership groups, awareness walks to keep an eye on classrooms and incentives for teachers and students who excel. Some special needs students get more work in regular classrooms while students have advisors to keep tabs on them throughout their three year stay at BCMS.
On the academic side, teaching standards identified by the state meant teachers had to focus on particular content however they might deliver it. The lesson plans had to be consistent, Howard said, even if a teacher’s method of delivering it to her students differed.
And though AYP relies on CRCT scores, teachers don’t simply teach students how to answer questions on the tests, Howard said.
"The test is driven by standards the state has given us to teach," she said. "So if we’re teaching our standards and students are mastering those standards, then they’ll do well on the CRCT. The CRCT should be the easiest test they take all year because they’re seeing it all year in the classrooms."
What’s more, textbooks don’t drive the curriculum, Hamm said.
"Standards do," she said, noting the school doesn’t use a math book but rather different units. "Textbooks are merely a resource."
And because BCMS is what Howard called a "Learning Focus School" there are now ‘accelerated’ classes for kids teachers believe may be in danger of falling behind in a subject.
"You don’t wait on a student to fail in a subject to remediate, you remediate up front," she said. "Accelerated teachers find out what’s coming up in a regular class and preview it for students so when they go in the following week, they’ll know the terminology and have some prior knowledge of what is being taught."
This is important in a community where 60 percent of the students are on reduced or free lunches and some may not always have the resources they need at home. And lessons are harder now than they were a few years ago, Howard said.
"A lot of what we teach in middle school you and I would have learned in high school," she said. "When they have finished 8th grade now they should have the equivalent of 9th grade algebra. And it’s not just in math. It’s more rigourous across the board."
Because of that, Bryan County’s 35 teachers no longer teach across grade lines.
"It used to be if you taught language arts you taught language arts all three grades," Hamm said. "Now teachers just teach one area and teach their own grade level because the standards are so deep now."
What’s more, Adequate Yearly Progress means just what is says -- so schools are expected to continually improve upon what they’ve done in previous years.
Yet BCMS has passed the academic portion of the AYP every year since 2005.
It’s been the attendance issue that has been problematic for Hamm and her staff.
"AYP is fair," she said. "But my point of contention is the second indicator, attendance. Personally, I don’t think there should be a second indicator. As long as your academic score is good, you should make it. The second indicator is something you don’t always have control over."
Ironically, Bryan County Schools chose attendance from a number of possible second indicators. But it’s easy to understand why school officials can feel frustrated.
Schools are judged not only by its student body as a whole, but also in "subgroups" -- which break down kids into a number of different categories.
For example, a special needs student is in a subgroup, so is one who is economically disadvantaged.
There are subgroups for race as well, and gender. And obviously, the bigger the school, the bigger the subgroups.
At BCMS, which has a student body this year of approximately 400 kids, the subgroups can be as small as 40 kids.
That means less margin for error, or bad test scores -- or absences.
What's more, a single student can be in a number of different subgroups -- thus impacting the school as many as five times in terms of AYP.
"It can come down to one student missing one class too many," Hamm said. "That subgroup fails and the whole school fails."
Though students in Bryan County Schools can miss up to 15 days, parents are by BoE policy notified by letter after a child misses 7 days.
Hamm and her staff bumped up the notification process by two days. In addition, teachers started making phone calls to parents whose kids were missing classes.
What’s more, rather than wait until the end of the year to give kids recognition for prefect attendance, at BCMS it’s done once a month - and kids get a 20 minute break if they don’t miss a class over that span.
But kids skipping school didn’t cause BCMS to fall on the Needs Improvement list, Hamm said -- it was children who needed to stay home.
There’s where one problem with the attendance requirement lies, she said.
"If a child is sick and has a fever, parents need to keep him home," Hamm said. "But when you start going over 15 days, then it becomes a Catch-22. What do you do?"
Hamm fought the last AYP results, but her appeal was rejected. What's more, there are no quick fixes. A school has to pass two years in a row to get off the needs improvement list.
Yet at the same time BCMS teachers were working on improving academics and attendance, they also started reaching out to parents with events held both at night and in the mornings.
""We’ve been doing a parent night twice a year the last couple of years," Howard said. "Also a ‘Pastry for Parents’ breakfast. It has been extremely successful."
Parents who attend the events -- and Hamm said they are heavily attended -- get more than a meal.
They also get information or an opportunity to talk with teachers, and Hamm said the support of parents has helped BCMS get off the Needs Improvement list.
"I think parents being more educated to AYP and how they can help at home has definitely helped us," Howard said.
Yet there isn’t much time to sit back and rest for a school that has already unofficially seen its 2008 test scores bettered.
In math, Howard calculated a 10 percent improvement in the number of students passing while social studies went up 26 percent. Other areas saw an increase in the number of kids passing as well.
"We want to celebrate where we are at, but we know we’ve got to keep moving forward," Howard said.
Still, they’ll do something to mark getting off the Needs Improvement List.
"We haven’t done anything yet," Hamm said. "But we plan to."