Much attention over the past year has been paid to Hamilton County's priority schools, and rightly so.
Student performance at the five schools — tabbed "priority" by the state because they are in the bottom 5 percent of all schools statewide — has been so stagnant over a decade or more that the state Department of Education was on the verge of taking them over.
Indeed, the state had sent the district a scathing report in 2016, saying it needed to act with "absolute urgency" to improve the schools.
Although none of the five schools — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary — earned high enough grades on standardized tests during the last school year to escape additional state oversight, the Department of Education annual State Report Card released this week did highlight several improvements at the schools.
Four of the five schools, for instance, saw improvements in attendance from the 2015-2016 school year, from less than a point for Woodmore Elementary to six points for Orchard Knob Middle.
Brainerd High's attendance figures were missing from the report card, but the district had made that school, where more than 60 percent of the students were considered chronically absent, a target. To combat that, the district sent a "sweep" bus out to pick up students who did not make it to school on time. Then-Principal Uras Agee said last winter, just past mid-year, that the second-chance bus had helped push up attendance, but we wish the yearly figures were available to back up his assertion.
Dalewood increased its promotion rate from 2015-2016 nearly 2 percent, from 96.55 to 98.3 percent. While three of the other four had drops in promotion rate, they were less than 1 percent and thus statistically insignificant. Brainerd's promotion rate was not listed.
Meanwhile, Brainerd improved its ACT composite score from 14.7 to 15.5, and the percentage of its students who scored 21 or better on the test rose from 5.5 to 7.1 percent.
Discipline is a factor on student performance at the priority schools but is rarely cited. However, the state tracks discipline figures, and the numbers for the 2016-2017 school year indicate all five of the schools are doing better, some dramatically.
Indeed, all five dropped in the percentage of their students who were suspended during the year. Suspensions at Brainerd High fell 1.8 percent to 42.6 percent of all students, but they fell 24.2 percent to 18.7 percent of students at Orchard Knob Middle, 6.3 percent to 23.1 percent of students at Dalewood Middle, 5.9 percent to 14.2 percent of students at Woodmore Elementary and 3.2 percent to 2.7 percent of students at Orchard Knob Elementary.
The district's average composite ACT score inched up from 19.8 in 2015-2016 to 19.9 in 2016-2017, but scores increased at almost every high school.
The biggest climbs came at the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) School from 20.9 to 23.3, Lookout Valley from 19.8 to 21.2 and Sale Creek from 20.3 to 21.7.
Five Hamilton County schools were honored for being in the top 10 percent of schools statewide, Thrasher Elementary on Signal Mountain for performances and progress, Lookout Mountain Elementary, Nolan Elementary on Signal Mountain and STEM School Chattanooga for performance, and East Ridge Middle School for progress.
The report card also lists Hixson Middle School as exiting the Focus Schools list, meaning it earned its way off the list by improving graduation rate, success rate and/or subgroup gaps. Red Bank High School was listed as Focus Improving, which means its performance has improved but not enough to put it on the Focus Exit list.
No Hamilton County School earned its way on the Priority Improving or Priority Exit list.
Overall, the district was designated as Achieving for its slight growth as measured by the state education department's accountability system. Since the 2016-2017 school year was the last year of the current accountability system, we hope the district will use its Achieving status as a baseline. The accountability system of the 2017-2018 school year will have five designations: Exemplary, Advancing, Satisfactory, Marginal and In Need of Improvement.
We know Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson, in frequently saying he wants Hamilton County to be "the fastest improving district in Tennessee," would like to see the district on the Exemplary list.
If the priority schools improve — and they have been placed in the state's new Partnership Zone and the district's new Opportunity Zone for closer monitoring — the district might well earn that exemplary distinction of being Exemplary.