How Saginaw Prep Turned Around Academically

Charter school shedding 'priority' label

One mid-Michigan charter school striving not to be defined by its past has begun to see the payoff for changing its attitude and approach.

While the state of Michigan still officially recognizes the Saginaw Preparatory Academy as a low-achievement “Priority school,” more of its students are demonstrating the reading and writing skills they need to advance.

On a campus situated just within the city limits and across from wide-open farm fields, Saginaw Prep serves a mostly poor, African-American student body. Free transportation on traditional yellow buses is provided to keep the school within reach of kids, many of whom hail from the other side of town.

Saginaw Prep automatically landed on the state of Michigan’s Priority list in 2014 by finishing in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-to-Bottom rankings, a system heavily weighted on raw state test scores. Though the Priority label reflects only one year’s results, it sticks with a school for four straight years.

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As the Mackinac Center has noted, the Top-to-Bottom rankings — soon to be used for high-stakes closure decisions — tend to align much more heavily with student poverty than with school quality. That means the state rankings do a good job telling us how students scored compared to the state average, but a poor job showing how well or poorly schools and teachers are performing.

To better show that, our Context and Performance report cards adjust scores against the outcome expected based on the share of students who receive free lunch subsidies. On the 2015 report card, high-poverty Saginaw Prep earned a B, meaning its adjusted score rated higher than nearly 80 percent of the state’s public elementary and middle schools.

The School Reform Office in Lansing issued the label, but the impetus to follow through on improvement has emerged from within the school itself. Third-year school leader Molly Rundell and her team have charted an upward course that is paying dividends.

Saginaw Prep’s improvement plan incorporates a new reading curriculum and semimonthly after-school professional meetings, where teachers review student achievement data and share successful strategies.

Perhaps most important is the consistent commitment to instructional time. While Rundell notes that “we need every single minute” of the school day, she is especially protective of the early hours. Students in kindergarten through 5th grade spend 100 minutes every morning focused on intensive English language arts instruction. Nothing interrupts activity before 10:00 a.m., not even the occasional field trip.

The fruits of focused hard work are evident on the school’s most recent round of M-STEP English tests, where nearly every group demonstrated significant increases. Proficiency rates doubled in fourth and fifth grade, with eighth-graders making their own dramatic growth.

Personal connections also play a significant role in fueling improvement. Teachers and other staff members wear red and black to school Monday through Thursday each week, matching the color of student uniforms, in a show of unity.

The sense of community bridges an even greater generational span than the one that exists between students and teachers. For years, a partnership with the Saginaw County Commission on Aging has brought elderly community members, like 92-year-old “Grandma Dora,” to the school. They faithfully volunteer in the younger grades to reinforce classroom standards and to offer help or a hug.

This year, Saginaw Prep has expanded its commitment to mentorship within the school. For its quarterly elective period, one section of the school’s eighth-graders are dispatched to the younger classes to provide extra tutorial help. Principal Rundell says the program benefits the skills and character of both sets of students.

The school partners directly with the Leona Group, a management company that employs its staff, and is authorized by the hometown Saginaw Valley State University. But it’s the relationship school staff builds with parents that provides the most direct accountability and strongest foundation for academic progress.

While members of the school community may appreciate the recent positive changes at Saginaw Prep, school leadership exudes no sense of having arrived. “I just want to continue on this trajectory and keep aiming high,” Rundell said.

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