Wake-Up Call Helps Rural School Bloom

Bloomingdale leaves state watch list

A state label served as a wake-up call for one rural Southwest Michigan district. Today, its high school stands out as one of the top academic performers in the state.

In August 2010, the Michigan Department of Education released its first list of underachieving schools under a new law that created a school reform office with the power to take over the worst schools.

Bloomingdale High School was one of 92 schools designated as “persistently low-achieving.” Troubled by the stigma, district and school leaders wasted little time in taking action, even though the state education department shied away from its newfound power to impose reforms. “Some other schools on the list didn’t seem too concerned, but we took it seriously,” principal Rick Reo said.

When the announcement came, Reo’s role had just expanded from leading the high school to taking over the middle school, too – a realignment caused by a period of tight budgets. He and Superintendent Deb Paquette decided to roll up their sleeves rather than fall back on excuses. Educators across the district, including those at the two elementary schools, became important partners.

The threat of declining enrollment was very real for the rural campus. Bloomingdale had already lost more students than it gained through Schools of Choice, which enables families to more easily enroll in districts outside the ones they live in. The district’s Hispanic population has grown in recent years, and a majority of kids are eligible for federally subsidized free lunch because of family poverty.

Rather than just stem the tide, the district made noticeable improvement within a matter of a few years. Bloomingdale has earned a strong A on the two most recent editions of the Mackinac Center’s Public High School Context and Performance Report Card, which adjusts several years of 11th-grade state test scores for expectations based on student poverty. Most recently, the school finished 11th out of 639 schools statewide and narrowly missed being the top-rated conventional district high school in Michigan.

In 2012, Bloomingdale rated 10th out of 11 Van Buren County high schools in the share of students who met state benchmarks for college and career readiness. Two years later, it had ascended to second and also ditched the negative state designation. Senior students had begun applying positive peer pressure to underclassmen: “We got us off the list, now you have to keep us off.”

Key to turning things around were intentional changes in the school culture. The school rewarded academic goals with student assemblies that featured teachers taking dares or acting out humorous scenes on videos. Individual student incentives for good behavior included trips to watch a Detroit Tigers or Detroit Pistons game — a long drive across the state for a special treat.

The creation of advisory groups — small communities of 15 to 25 kids paired with a mentor teacher —reinforced the message through service projects and a focused development of study skills. The attitude took root early on as one group of students produced a powerful video in which they directly conveyed the message: “We will defy the label” from the state’s 2010 list.

Defying the label required classroom changes that ensured students were learning more knowledge and skills. The district embraced new curriculum and teaching methods that promote higher-order thinking rather than rote memorization. Teacher Kevin Farmer was instrumental in helping to lead professional development for his math department and elementary school colleagues. By promising them a free iPad as part of the training, the district was able to entice nearly all of them to participate.

Switching to a trimester schedule has let teachers dedicate more time to core subject instruction and has given students more opportunities to master needed skills in math and language arts. Bloomingdale also benefited from the insights of outside expert Mark Wahlstrom, who made the data from assessment results meaningful and useful to faculty and staff, and helped them refocus on important material students needed to learn.

“We wanted to end the negativity associated with teaching to the test,” Reo said.

Bloomingdale’s final key to improvement was to patiently communicate with parents and other local residents, highlighted by special evening events. The community forums Reo led in the wake of the initial bad news proved especially critical. “People wanted to know we had a plan, and we reassured them,” superintendent Paquette said.

Local education leaders delivered on that reassurance. The challenge that now faces Bloomingdale is sustaining and building off that success.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.