Cultural Shifts, Changes in Administration Lead Schools to Success

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, presents Alvin Ward, principal of Hamtramck Academy, with a certificate to honor the school’s success.

Numbers only begin to tell the story of some of the state's top schools, but the numbers on the Mackinac Center's report card don't lie.

It seemed entirely fitting, then, that the state's top school welcomed my colleague Ilia Anderson and me on a day that celebrated a well-known geometric ratio: Pi Day. We arrived at Hamtramck Academy just in time to witness a packed room of students cheering as their peers planted cream pies into teachers' faces. In an earlier competition, a fifth-grade student had won an annual contest by reciting from memory 368 digits of pi.

An embrace of Pi Day reflects the values of a school whose math scores outpace the state’s, especially at the higher grade levels, where test scores tend to decline. Hamtramck Academy's performance in other subjects rates fairly well, too. But the fact that nearly all its students come from low-income families makes the results more dramatic.

The Mackinac Center’s latest Context and Performance Report Card adjusted three years of state M-STEP scores for every public elementary and middle school in the state. It did so based on the rate of low-income students, as measured by how many students receive free lunch subsidies. The challenges associated with student poverty suggest that schools with a high concentration of poverty won’t do as well on state tests, but some schools beat the statistical odds. That's how Hamtramck Academy, a National Heritage Academies charter school, earned the top spot on our report card.

"I'm just elated to have this recognition as being ranked No. 1 in the state by the Mackinac Center," Principal Alvin Ward told us on our March 14 visit. "It really dispels the myth that students that come from humble beginnings can't be high achievers."

The eye-opening finish of Dearborn Public Schools, with nearly three-fourths of its students in poverty, also upsets the myth. Five of the 10 highest CAP Scores on our new report card went to schools in the state's third-largest district. Half of the 30 Dearborn schools rated on our report card finished in the top 4 percent statewide. These numbers suggest that the district is doing something right.

The cause of Dearborn's success isn't entirely clear, but Superintendent Glenn Maleyko offered some possible keys. Perhaps the most unusual is the district's decision to manage schools within geographic zones rather than the grade levels they serve. Also key is a rigorous system that sends administrators and master teachers into classrooms for frequent visits, giving them the chance to provide prompt and thorough feedback to teachers.

A high level of spending doesn’t explain the district’s success. Dearborn spends a little more than the average Michigan school district, $12,000 a pupil. That’s about 20 percent less than nearby Detroit Public Schools Community District, the nation's worst performer.

Interestingly, both Hamtramck Academy and Dearborn Public Schools educate very high shares of immigrant students who don’t speak English as their first language. This fact does not factor into our report card, but it’s something that may require further study.

Our report card this year added something new to the mix. Eight years of CAP Score data allowed us to see which schools are losing ground and which are on the upswing. A pair of Detroit schools that left district management to become charter schools showed the greatest improvements in the state.

Right behind them, though, was rural Akron-Fairgrove Elementary in the state's Thumb region. After the school earned a negative label from the state, its leaders consulted with experts to revamp some basic strategies and started attracting back some families that had opted for other districts. Student achievement quickly progressed.

No grand state program or major funding increase launched the turnarounds in Akron-Fairgrove or in the metro Detroit area. Parent and community support have been crucial, as have school cultures that focus on raising expectations for kids and working out those cultures through dedicated teachers and leaders.

In the end, the numbers tell us that the actions of these and other high-flying schools have paid off in giving many Michigan children a greater chance at success.