Rural School Makes Fast Rise

Akron-Fairgrove among most improved on Mackinac report card

In 2014 the Michigan Department of Education identified rural Akron-Fairgrove Elementary in the state's Thumb region as a struggling "Focus School." With outside help and community support, the school quickly turned around. Within two years, Akron-Fairgrove shed the "Focus School" designation and was being lauded by the state for beating the odds, but it wasn't resting on its laurels.

The recognition and attitude are mirrored in the results of the Mackinac Center's new Elementary and Middle School Context and Performance (CAP) Report Card, which adjusts the previous three years of state M-STEP testing data to account for the challenges associated with poverty.

Three out of five Akron-Fairgrove Elementary students are eligible for free lunch subsidies due to low family income. Yet out of more than 2,000 schools statewide, the school showed the third-greatest CAP Score improvement from the previous five-year period. (The two most-improved schools are a pair of former Detroit district schools converted to charter status under nonprofit management.)

Akron-Fairgrove Elementary's giant step up moved it into the top 1 percent of CAP Scores for all schools statewide. Only one of the 534 rural schools across the state (Brown Elementary in Byron Center) rated higher, and that, only narrowly. Our findings about Akron-Fairgrove are not an outlier, either. The school earned a nearly perfect score on the Michigan Department of Education's School Index, the state's new official rating system. The school also has been nominated by the state to become a U.S. Blue Ribbon School.

Akron-Fairgrove Elementary rests off the beaten path in northern Tuscola County. The school district encompasses its small namesake villages and acres of windswept farmland, touching on a small corner of Saginaw Bay. Fewer than 300 students are enrolled in grades kindergarten through 12, half of them in the elementary school.

School leaders attribute the remarkable progress to assistance from the MI Excel Resource Center. The center's facilitator, Sarah Watson, helped the school reconfigure systems, leading to better teaching strategies. Akron-Fairgrove adapted its curriculum to focus more deeply on fewer key concepts and standards. "We stopped placing blame, and started asking hard questions," said Superintendent Diane Foster.

Careful attention to results on periodic math and language arts tests also led to a greater focus on individual student needs. A private staff room was turned into a "data wall" with color-coded sticky notes attached to each student's name to show who is meeting standards in math and language arts and who needs additional help. The school launched "Power Hours" for each grade; during that time, classroom aides take the data and give students individual attention.

"If a student is struggling, that's a challenge to our staff. They say they're going to figure this out. They will turn the Rubik's cube until they find the right combination," Foster said. "They're not going to take ‘No’ for an answer."

After losing both the Focus School label and the grant money for their facilitator, Foster and her team didn't claim victory and move on. Instead, they maintained the sense of urgency to help students achieve more.

"Akron-Fairgrove has the most humble, hardworking, and tenacious leadership that I have ever had the opportunity to serve," said Watson. "It is evident in the willingness of the staff to do whatever it takes to make the necessary changes for their students."

Continuing to aim higher, the school earned the highest scores in Tuscola County on seven of eight 2017 M-STEP tests, despite serving a higher share of low-income students than most other county schools. According to Principal Rebecca Crosby, the changes have caught the attention of their neighbors. "Not long ago people used to say to us, 'When are you closing down?'" she said. "They're not saying that anymore."

The rural school district still loses more resident students to Schools of Choice than it gains from nonresidents who enroll. But that trend is turning around. The number of children transferring into the district has nearly tripled over three years – going from 12 to 34 – while the number transferring out has dropped by a similar amount. One family drove 40 minutes to drop off their child each day.

Crosby notes that five of the elementary school's nine teachers are new to the staff in 2017-18, an unusually high turnover that’s tied to various individual circumstances. But the faculty's focus on improving academics has remained strong.

Akron-Fairgrove has drawn back educators who demonstrate a true investment in the community. Crosby and several staff members and their spouses are Akron-Fairgrove alumni, and the children are all recognized by name. A stranger is quickly recognized on campus. "It's definitely family here," Crosby said. "It makes a difference when people really trust you with their kids."

Community support for the schools has been crucial. Local businesses and churches have helped underwrite a program that offers free backpacks and school supplies to students. Strong relationships and open communication also have helped the district move to a faculty-designed, balanced calendar with a shorter summer vacation and more breaks throughout the rest of the year. More frequent breaks help keep students focused when they are at school, and as a result, student discipline has become less of a problem. Crosby observed that families have not complained and that all staff want to keep the schedule.

"We're flying now," said Foster. "We're in a good place as a district, and students are going to be the beneficiaries."