Hannibal’s Focus School Designation Puts District Under Time Pressure

The Superintendent of Oswego County BOCES tried to put a hopeful face on it, but there’s no getting around the fact that Hannibal Central Schools are under heavy pressure to improve test scores, fast.

Superintendent Chris Todd walked the Board of Education this week through the district’s new designation as a “Focus” school district and the similar designations for its high school and middle school.

Focus is just the latest in a series of labels used by the state or federal governments to identify low-performing schools.  Hannibal has been, at one point or another, a School in Need of Improvement or a School Under Registration Review, which used to be steps on the downward path towards a state takeover of the school district.

New federal funding and education rules scrap those designations in favor of terms such as Priority, Focus and Reward.  Reward honors the best-performing schools and gives them some extra money.  Focus identifies low-performing schools and districts.  Priority is the lowest of the low — the bottom 5% of all schools.  Hannibal is not on the Priority list.

Hannibal appears to have made the list because of the performance of students with disabilities.  According to data posted on the New York State Education Department website, 76% of Fairley Elementary’s students with disabilities were judged to be non-proficient, a number that was not high enough to land the school on the Focus list.  Kenney Middle School, with 88.2% non-proficiency among students with disabilities, and the high school, at 88.6% non-proficient, both made the Focus list.

Hannibal will now have to come up with detailed plans for rapid improvement.  The district needs to get off the Focus list by the end of the 2013 – 14 school year, Todd said.

“We need to meet our mark by then,” he said.  “What mark? We don’t know that yet.”

New York State is coming up with its plans and procedures for school improvement, even as it holds schools accountable for not meeting the standards it hasn’t yet come up with.

Schools leaders often use a metaphor to explain the bewildering process.  It is, they say, like building an airplane while it’s flying.

What school do know, Todd said, is that the old method of assessing school quality is out.  Now, in addition to the previous method of counting the percentage of students who do not meet state test standards, schools will be given credit for the amount of improvement in those groups.

“You have been making some progress,” Todd said. “You have a lot of good initiatives going.”

And Todd might have left it at that, if not for a board member who asked him bluntly to explain what happens if they don’t show enough improvement.

Focus “is not just another label,” he said.  “There is an ending to this.  They’re very serious about this.”

The ending could be a federal decree for what Todd called whole school reform.  The school could be told to take on a third party “which controls curriculum and maybe management. They would take a lot of power away from your choices.”

And he said that the state is doubtful that the federal government will give districts some money to help them improve if they fail as a Focus district.

But Todd chose to remain optimistic, praising teachers, administrators and staff “that hasn’t been showered with good news lately.”

“You’re headed in the right direction.”