Decatur students are scoring at or above the state average in grades 3 through 8, but the school system’s 68-percent graduation rate remains below the state average.
To address this matter, a data-comparison firm is suggesting Decatur change what it is doing with its middle-school programs.
“This is where you have to get your hooks in them,” the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s Joe Adams told a group of educators and community leaders Wednesday morning.
Adams, research coordinator for the Birmingham-based organization, was in town to present data comparing Decatur City Schools to seven other north Alabama school systems.
An anonymous donor gave $5,000 to the Decatur City Schools Foundation to pay for the study, foundation Executive Director Jesslyn Reeves said.
“The information we have gotten is going to tell us where we are and where we need to go,” she said.
Adams’ comments about middle-school changes drew an applause from Superintendent Ed Nichols.
“We’ve got to restructure middle schools because this is where we make National Merit finalists and create the dropout rate,” the superintendent said.
Decatur’s graduation rate is four percentage points lower than the state average of 72 percent and “something unacceptable,” Nichols said.
School systems should address these issues at the middle-school level because “this is when students are leaving the fairy tale and talking about being engineers and accountants,” Adams said.
Nichols said Decatur is looking at ways to better engage middle-school students. “We want to offer more extracurricular activities and more electives for middle schoolers,” he said.
To do this, the system must scale back the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for grades 6-10. Right now, all Decatur students are required to follow the IB academic tract.
“We want to look at alternatives so that our students will have more opportunities for electives,” Nichols said.
On the IB tract, a student must choose between chorus and band because the IB program requires four years of a foreign language.
The superintendent said school officials are also looking at adding athletic programs such as baseball and softball in the three middle schools. That, he said, will give more middle-school students at Oak Park, Brookhaven and Cedar Ridge “something to connect with.”
How to address the graduation rate was just one of the matters Adams discussed during the hour-long meeting. The information he presented came from looking at 390,000 lines of state-provided data about the Decatur system, but some of the audience wanted more. Attorney Barney Lovelace said he wanted to know how Decatur students were scoring compared to systems such as Hartselle and Madison City Schools.
“What can we take from this and use if we’re trying to attract people to Decatur?” he asked.
Adams said tracking what the state is doing is a great selling point.
Jack Fite of Fite Building Co. questioned whether comparing Decatur to state averages was good “because the state doesn’t always have a good reputation.”
Adams said his data is measuring Decatur at Level IV, which is what the state considers above proficiency. He said Decatur “should consistently” score better than the state before changing its benchmark.
“The reason I presented it this way is to show your overall strengths and to show what you need to improve,” he said.
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