Teachers and administrators recently took a brief pause to celebrate improvements at several local schools, but Superintendent Chresal Threadgill was quick to say the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) has no plans to coast on those achievements.

“These accomplishments are great, but it means it’s time for us to work harder,” he said.

Threadgill was referring to the Alabama State Department of Education’s (ALSDE) release of individual school report cards. It’s only the second year such “A-F” report cards have been released; results show there are more A’s and B’s and fewer D’s and F’s across the state and throughout Mobile County.

The grades for elementary schools are based on scores from state standardized tests as well as such elements as growth in student learning from one semester to the next and attendance. High schools are measured by the same factors plus graduation rates and the number of students who meet state-designated benchmarks for college and career readiness.

Last year, 16 MCPSS schools received D’s and seven received F’s.

However, administrators at the time took some issue with those scores being based, at least in part, on results from the ACT Aspire — a test ALSDE stopped administering in 2017 after it was found to be improperly aligned with statewide curriculum standards.

The standardized tests that impacted schools’ letter grades this year were the Scantron assessment, which was given to certain elementary and middle school students, and the ACT college entrance exam all Alabama juniors have been required to take since 2014.

On the report cards, MCPSS’ number of A and B schools jumped from 23 to 31, and the number of schools scoring D’s and F’s fell from 16 to 10. Only one school received an F, and four of the seven schools that received failing grades last year improved by two full letter grades to earn an overall C.

Council Traditional School and the Eichold-Mertz School of Math, Science and Technology — both magnet programs — scored perfect 100’s. Only four schools in Alabama were able to accomplish this, and MCPSS is the only district in Alabama to have more than one perfect score.

Threadgill credited the improvements to leadership at the school level and the work of teachers in the classroom. Yet, he also acknowledged MCPSS — a system stigmatized for having multiple “failing schools” in recent years — still has a lot of work to do.

“We’re going to celebrate these results just one day, then it’s back to work,” Threadgill said the day scores were released. “Our kids deserve, as I often say, 110 percent each and every day. These improvements, to me, mean that our kids are capable. It signifies, to me, that our students and our faculty and staff can and will continue rising to higher expectations.”

Eichold-Mertz

At Eichold-Mertz, last year wasn’t about improving student performance so much as maintaining it, as the school earned a perfect 100 on its report card last year as well.

Serving 600 students in grades K-5, Eichold-Mertz is one of seven MCPSS magnet programs, which have historically been among its higher-performing schools. Magnet schools are open to all students, but enrollment is determined by a lottery and students must meet certain entrance criteria.

The Denton Magnet School of Technology is the only MCPSS magnet program to receive a score lower than an A this year, though Denton was only converted to a magnet school two years ago after seeing a continued reduction in enrollment and low scores on state standardized tests.

Eichold-Mertz Principal Michelle DuBose Adams credited the school’s success to “hard work and high expectations,” not just for teachers and staff members, but also for students and their parents.

“One of the first people I go to each year is the parents, and if my parents say that the grandma is keeping that child, then I’m calling grandma,” Adams said. “Some of the teachers even started having parents sign contracts stating that they know there’s a certain project due.”

Adams said efforts are made to teach parents, too. Teachers sometimes make videos for parents on specific concepts being covered in class or timelines about how to progress through specific projects — all so they can be more effective helping their children at home.

According to Adams, the school also places a strong emphasis on collecting and analyzing student testing data.

Like other MCPSS schools, Eichold-Mertz administers universal screening assessments in the areas of reading and mathematics. The staff also works with elementary schools to get an understanding of how incoming students are performing before they even arrive at the school.

All that information, coupled with the teachers’ daily interactions in the classroom, can help identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. It also allows administrators to do some “creative scheduling” to get struggling students paired with teachers who specialize in a specific subject. Adams compared it to “going to the doctor’s office.”

“Before they do anything else, they’ve got to do a couple of tests. We do a lot of that,” she said. “When I find out what your strengths or weaknesses are, whether they’re in math or reading, I begin to write a prescription for you with certain teachers. I’m going to make sure you get paired up with them sometime during the day so that you can benefit from what they have to give.”

Though it’s only the second year of school report cards, Eichold-Mertz has maintained good standardized testing scores for several years. Adams said test scores have no doubt earned the school some extra leeway to try out now things, but she also credited Threadgill for understanding “every school has a different personality” as well as “different needs.”

Scarborough Middle School

Threadgill didn’t sugarcoat things when talking about the academic history at Scarborough Middle School. He said it had been “a failing school for many, many years.”

Scarborough has indeed had struggles for some time, and has found itself on the list of “failing schools” associated with the Alabama Accountability Act several years in a row.

The Mobile County school board moved to “reconstitute” the school in 2016, which meant bringing in an entirely new staff, significantly increasing the number of teachers and offering some financial incentives for teachers taking jobs in hard-to-staff subject areas.

When report cards were released for the 2016-2017 school year, Scarborough received an F, though it’s worth noting those scores included some measurements taken before the school was reconstituted. But after two years of instruction under the new model, the results released in late December show Scarborough students making significant improvements in the classroom.

The school’s scores jumped from 50 percent to 71 percent — earning an overall C. That increase was second only to Booker T. Washington Middle School, which showed the most improvement of any MCPSS school with a 22-point increase from 2017 to 2018.

Andrea Dennis, who spent 18 years at Theodore High School and was brought on board as Scarborough’s principal in 2016, said there were some easily noticeable changes after the transition — like smaller class sizes and better access to technology.

Scarborough Middle School Principal Andrea Dennis. (Dan Anderson)

In the classroom, some of the teaching strategies also changed. Scarborough teachers work in teams based on the grade they teach instead of the subject they teach. Dennis said it’s allowed more collaboration on how best to teach specific students, as opposed to specific subject areas.

Dennis said the staffing shake-up was more than putting more bodies in the building. She said the students have thrived because of the relationships they’ve built with teachers, administrators and counselors because there’s been more stability and less turnover since the change in 2016.

“It’s not just the content we have to focus on,” Dennis said. “I need people who are empathetic to what students are going through. It may be cliché to say, ‘they need to know you care,’ but they absolutely do. All students don’t come from the same households. They have challenges outside of school that filter into school, and we have to have people who are ready to address all of that.”

According to Dennis, one the earliest goals the staff set was getting students and their parents to buy into the transition and take ownership of how their school performs. In the last three years, she said, Scarborough’s “parental participation has increased tremendously.”

“I spent my entire first year here at the school just building the relationships with parents and getting them to trust this process. They’d seen different principals and administrations come and go — and they’d also seen the results,” Dennis said. “We needed them to be involved, and not every parent is involved still, but every parent isn’t involved at any school.”

Like Eichold-Mertz, Scarborough also relies heavily on student data, but the school has also been very open with students about how they and the entire school are performing. Assistant Principal Keshia Barnett said that’s more about establishing “a collective ownership” than making any one student feel like they’re ahead or behind their classmates.

“We’ve established a culture here where it’s OK not to be at a certain level yet. You are where you are, and we’re going to keep pushing you,” Barnett said. “It’s almost like a cheerleading section — it’s a whole school moving forward together.”

Another “game changer” for Scarborough, according to Dennis, has been an after-school and summer learning program for students called Project Smart, funded for the past two years by a $450,000 competitive grant the school won in 2017.

Tivella Davis, an instructional specialist who coordinates the program, said the grant has allowed Scarborough to offer two hours of academic support and enrichment activities after school at no cost to students, and create opportunities for development in the summer.

Some of the electives include archery, coding and music production — a program set up by Assistant Principal Luther Davis that requires expensive software that would have most likely been unattainable without the grant. Since then, several of the students wrote and recorded a song about Project Smart.

Project Smart has also allowed the school to offer targeted instruction in areas where certain students struggle, while also offering ACT prep for students who are ahead. In fact, some of Scarborough’s higher-performing sixth, seventh and eighth graders will be taking the ACT next month.

“Students have really been receptive to it. One thing we do here — teachers and students — is set goals. We don’t have a mindset of ‘they can’t achieve’ or can’t do something. We know we have students on this campus performing at a high school level right now, and we’re making sure they’re exposed to curriculum and material at that level so they can continue to grow.”

Dennis said she is proud of the ground covered by her leadership team and Scarborough’s teachers over the past two and half years, but said the celebrations over the C grade the school received this year didn’t last long. Like Threadgill, she doesn’t plan to settle for average.

Things were business as usual when kids returned to school Jan. 7, and she said the culture at Scarborough has changed and the kids are motivated to change the school’s narrative. One motivation is the “failing” label still affixed to the school from the Alabama Accountability Act.

“When I first walked into this school, I met with a group of sixth graders and asked them what it meant to be at a failing school, and the responses I got included: ‘It means we’re bad,’ and ‘It means we’re dumb’ or ‘it means we’re stupid,’” Dennis said. “I don’t think the people who assign these labels really understand how children can internalize it and what it does to the psyche of the children and the community when they just accept: This is what we are.”

“It’s very important for us to try to get rid of that label for this school, for this community and for our children to be able to feel pride in their school and in themselves,” Dennis added.