Jeannette, 3 others under state scrutiny over low test scores
By Richard Gazarik
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Superintendent Matthew Hutcheson is in a race to turn around academically troubled Jeannette Senior High School, where absenteeism is high and many students struggle with math and reading.
The school has been placed on “warning” status by the state Department of Education after finishing in the lower 15 percent in combined math and reading scores on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. The status means the school did not meet the average yearly academic targets.
The school's continued failure to meet academic goals within one year could trigger state intervention.
The Jeannette school is one of four in Westmoreland County that the state has designated as low-performers. The others are the Monessen district's three schools. Of 500 districts in Pennsylvania, 71 earned the lowest rating, according to state figures.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said 23 low-achieving schools performed better on tests last year and were removed from warning status.
“It's not unreasonable. I'm not saying it's not possible, but it may take a couple of years. It depends on what local leadership does,” Eller said.
Professor Barbara Hess, who teaches education at California University of Pennsylvania, thinks it's unlikely a school district with low test scores could turn around the program within a year unless teachers “teach to the test day after day after day.”
“My gut feeling is no. I don't see how you can,” Hess said.
Eighteen percent of Jeannette high school students fell below basic proficiency in math. Only 36 percent were rated proficient, and 23 percent rated advanced, according to the state. In reading, 17 percent of students tested below basic proficiency.
The Jeannette School District is addressing the high absentee rate, Hutcheson said, noting there is a direct correlation between test scores and the number of school days a student misses.
The school board recently restricted student absences to 20 days per school year instead of 30. Students who miss more than 20 days must make up the time on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Those who don't are not allowed to attend the prom, graduate or advance to the next grade.
Hutcheson, who said next year the policy will be even tougher, isn't sure why absenteeism is high.
“We haven't truly nailed that down as of yet,” he said.
President Joe Yorio said when the school board tightened the absentee policy, parents stormed a meeting to criticize the directors.
“They started screaming. We said, ‘Don't blame the board. Don't blame the teachers.' Finally, we said enough. Parents, don't you realize we're trying to help your children? Personally, I don't think parents care anymore,” said Yorio, who has been a director for 35 years.
The city's population is dwindling, along with its tax base. City council is working to turn around its finances, which nearly caused the state to declare it a distressed municipality subject to state oversight.
Jeannette is one of the county's poorer school districts; most of its 1,138 students come from low- and moderate-income families, the U.S. Census shows. Hutcheson said nearly 70 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Nearly 25 percent are enrolled in special education.
The district failed to meet a state goal of an 85 percent graduation rate. Only 77 percent of its seniors graduate, compared to an 83 percent state average, according to the education department.
Hutcheson said the district will reassess all of its teaching methods and work to improve math and reading programs.
The district will partner with Westmoreland County Community College and add higher-level courses. Sophomores and juniors will take the college's entrance exam to gauge their performance, he said. Those scores will be compared against the soon-to-be-released results of the Keystone exams, which replace the PSSA tests.
Students will be required to pass algebra, reading and biology tests in order to graduate.
The district is reviewing the math curriculum to “align what students need to know,” Hutcheson said.
“The board's aware of (the problems),” Yorio said. “We're really upset about it. Believe me, I'm not happy with it. The rest of the board is not happy with it.”
“It's going to take us a year to get a good read on the problem,” Hutcheson said. “None of this will happen overnight.”
Parents who are concerned about their children's low academic achievement have the option of leaving the district.
The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program provides tuition to low- and moderate- income students to attend a nonpublic school in low-achieving districts. Jeannette students could enroll in a Catholic or Christian-based private school in the county if their parents feel they would obtain a better education there.
But Hutcheson doesn't expect an exodus.
“I may be naive, but this is a very close-knit, strong community,” he said. “I hope their parents do their homework to see what's going on in these places.”
He said cyber, charter and private schools are not held accountable by the state as public schools are. Those schools aren't rated as low-achieving even if their assessment scores are lower than public schools.
Since private schools do not participate in state assessment tests, their achievement levels can't be determined, he said.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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