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BY TOM MITSOFF
NEWPORT - The schools system in this Campbell County city have "a general climate of low expectations for students," according to an independent audit of the Newport Independent School District.
"Interviews confirmed that, in the District, teachers, administrators and parents do not seem to understand that low performance on indicators ranging from the results on criterion reference tests to Advanced Placement examinations is a function of low expectations," according to the audit report prepared by SchoolMatch of Westerville, Ohio. Low expectations result in "acceptance of the status quo in student achievement," the report states.
The audit of the Newport district's educational effectiveness and financial analysis, conducted during the latter half of 2004, was sponsored by the City of Newport and endorsed by the Newport Board of Education. It also indicates parental involvement in the district is woefully low, and that the various buildings' site-based councils operate so independently from each other that it is detrimental to the district. Newport schools also don't have a standardized hiring process, the report said.
Results were released Thursday afternoon.
Drawing Comparisons, Conclusions
SchoolMatch compared Newport to 1,500 demographically similar districts in the Midwest and South in reaching its conclusions and recommendations.
One way to "send strong signals to the entire student body, and the community, that emphasis on academic performance is a priority of the school system" is to have a strong Advanced Placement (AP) program, the 104-page report states. "Clearly, the data suggest that strong efforts need to be immediately undertaken to improve the rigor of AP coursework. By comparison with similar students across the country, too few Newport students perform at acceptable levels to qualify for college credit."
The SchoolMatch report also says that a moderate amount of "grade inflation" (awarding higher grades and scores than student work warrants) occurs in Newport Schools. The district's 2.637 cumulative grade point average for the 2003-04 senior class is above the 2.4 average for student populations in districts similar to Newport. But Newport's standardized test scores are below state average and below the average of comparable districts.
"Generally, the highest grade inflation occurs in the lowest-achieving schools," the report states. "This is suggestive of low expectations for those students who most need to have higher expectations. Schools with grade inflation tend to reward low-quality work and grades may not reflect actual learning levels."
The audit suggests that Newport establish district-wide criteria for rigorous grading standards; train teachers in the district-wide standards, and "sensitize" teachers to the importance of maintaining high grading standards, and the "strong relationship between grading rigor and student performance on standardized tests."
Parental involvement in Newport High School and the middle school "is among the lowest of any district SchoolMatch teams have visited throughout the country," the report states. "The data suggest an unusually high number of single-parent families live in the City of Newport."
Presently, neither the high school nor the middle school has an organized parent-teacher organization. Other indicators of low parental involvement, according to the report, include "minimal, irregular or non-existent" newsletters from the schools, parent-teacher conferences and organized parent volunteer events and activities. The report recommends the district develop a plan with clear goals and timelines for increasing parental involvement and accommodating "hard-to-reach" populations like single parents.
Working in Silos
Site-based councils at the five Newport school buildings "work in isolation and to the detriment of the district as a whole," the report states.
"In a district the size of Newport Independent Schools, the five buildings (site-based councils and staffs) cannot afford to work in 'silos,' especially at the elementary level."
SchoolMatch recommends that site-based council members and staff begin to communicate and work together across schools to ensure that students are "consistently academically prepared" for middle and high school.
Lack of Hiring Standards
Currently, Newport has neither a well-documented system-wide, standardized personnel employment procedure, nor a structured interview process in place at any level, the audit report states.
"The lack of such standardized processes may lead to the employment of a teaching and support staff who fail to fulfill the competence needs, goals or mission of the district."
The report recommends that the district establish standardized initial screening of candidates, including the administration of a structured interview and comprehensive background and reference checks. Structured interview training needs to be provided to all principals, who in turn should then train the site-based council members, the report recommends.
Other recommendations in the audit report for improved academic achievement include:
Evidence indicates there is a need to focus on kindergarten readiness and early identification of skill deficits. The district does not have a uniform kindergarten-screening program and should implement one.
Greater emphasis needs to be made on improving literacy at all grade levels.
Continued "lack of rigor" in mathematics will ultimately affect student skill levels and student readiness for Advanced Placement, post-secondary options, college-level math courses and other challenging curricula and career options.
More foreign language and speech teachers are needed.
School officials should consider removing any and all potential barriers to student participation in Advanced Placement coursework and tests.
Consider adding CAD-CAM and drafting, presently not offered at the high school level.
Newport Middle School students' test scores drop significantly in grade six, and district and school leaders should "review the use of time in the school" to identify where increased instructional time can be found.
The value of co-op programs, in which more than 50 percent of Newport seniors participate, needs to be evaluated.
While "block scheduling" may be convenient for teachers and students at the high school, district officials need to study whether it might be an inadvertent barrier to improving student performance.
Exposure to gifted education programs is uneven (elementary program resources are only available in two schools), and needs to be distributed more evenly.
The district received 18 commendations from the SchoolMatch auditors, including:
College entrance exams: While few Newport students take college entrance exams and only 28 percent go to four-year colleges, the scores of college-bound students are higher than the scores of college-bound students in comparable districts.
Teacher attendance: Newport teachers miss less than five days of school per year, placing them in the top 15 percent of similar districts nationwide.
Central administrators: SchoolMatch auditors credited the district for "its ability to attract and retain this talented group of professionals."
Facilities: Maintenance and upkeep of buildings, even those that are aging, was "outstanding."
Youth and health resource services: Establishment of family resource centers, youth service centers and on-site/mobile health clinics "demonstrates strong commitment to meeting the physical and socio-emotional needs of students and their families."
Caring staff: SchoolMatch auditors "noted engaged teachers and staff who demonstrated a strong sense of care and interest in students."
Organization of space: "Supports the instructional program and fosters collaboration among staff."
Student safety: "School district officials are to be commended for taking the initiative to work with the Newport Police Department" to develop student safety and security programs.
SchoolMatch, in business since 1986, provides education data and auditing services to its clients, which include school districts, businesses and media outlets.
To view a summary of the audit recommendations, please visit www.newport.k12.ky.us/smsummary.pdf
To view the full audit report, visit www.newport.k12.ky.us/smreport.pdf
This news story was broken online January 13, 2005, on ChallengerNKY.com, and then was published January 16, 2005, in The Sunday Challenger, serving Northern Kentucky.
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