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Providence High shows high-scoring students can still make big gains

Math teacher Brandi Doty helped Providence High earn the state's second-highest growth rating for 2023.
Ann Doss Helms
Math teacher Brandi Doty helped Providence High earn the state's second-highest growth rating for 2023.

For people who know Charlotte, it’s no surprise that Providence High School got an A on North Carolina’s latest school performance grades. After all, it’s a low-poverty school where most students arrive with strong skills, and that’s the kind of school that tends to top the grades.

For schools with bigger challenges, such as high poverty levels or lots of students who aren’t fluent in English, North Carolina’s growth index can be a lifeline. It measures how much progress students made on reading, math and science exams. It only counts for 20% of the school performance grade, but that can be enough to bump up a school even if many students fell short of grade level.

Beth Thompson, chief strategy officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, noted that no matter how low proficiency levels are, a school can escape the low-performing label with a high growth score.

“They exceeded what the state expected to happen for children in their schools, so as a result the state does not categorize them as low performing because they’re making it happen at an accelerated rate for their students,” Thompson said.

The flip side of that is a misperception that Providence High Principal Tracey Harrill says she used to believe: “That high-achieving schools can’t meet growth.”

It seems intuitive: If, for instance, 30% of a school’s students are testing at grade level, there’s plenty of room to grow. But if most students are already scoring at or above grade level year after year, can a school keep moving them up?

The answer is yes — as demonstrated by the fact that Providence High had the second highest growth rating in North Carolina.

“I do believe the statisticians who work all these numbers have it set up where even high-performing students can grow,” Harrill said.

Not a fluke

In fact, the growth calculation is a lot more complex than just comparing increases in proficiency. A private contractor estimates the progress each student would be expected to make in a school year, compares it with the progress they actually did make and uses that to generate a school growth index. Those numbers can be confusing to the layperson. This year, they ranged from negative 14.2 for a middle school in Wayne County to positive 16.75 for a middle school in Alamance-Burlington, the only school that topped Providence.

Providence High School Principal Tracey Harrill.
Ann Doss Helms
Providence High School Principal Tracey Harrill.

“We show year after year after year we exceed growth,” Harrill said. “And it’s not just our lower-performing kids that are growing, or our middle-performing kids, or our high-performing students. It’s every subgroup.”

And Providence is not a fluke. Out of almost 2,600 district and charter schools in North Carolina, 37 had growth so high that it translated to a perfect score of 100 for calculating the final grade. Some were high-poverty schools struggling to get students up to grade level, such as Coulwood STEM Academy, Renaissance West STEAM Academy and Nations Ford and Paw Creek elementary schools in CMS.

But others were high-performing low-poverty schools, such as Ardrey Kell High and Jay M. Robinson Middle School in south Charlotte, Highland School of Technology in Gastonia, Cuthbertson High in Monroe and Harris Road and Hickory Ridge middle schools in Cabarrus County.

Back to basics

So what’s happening at Providence?

Harrill says after the coronavirus pandemic she went back to the basics, using a framework for effective schools that she’d learned in graduate school. It was things like making sure everyone was focused on state academic standards and providing a safe, orderly environment.

“When we first came back to school, we really had to teach students how to have school behaviors again,” she said.

Students across the state struggle with Math I — what used to be called algebra. The strongest math students take it in middle school. Those who arrive at Providence needing their Math I credit — it’s a graduation requirement — are sorted by their performance on eighth-grade math exams. Brandi Doty teaches the ones who need the most help, who take a class that gives them a full year of daily instruction.

She tries to make the lessons relevant. For instance, the current lesson on statistics involves means and medians. She used the problems the district provides, but also talked about median house prices in Charlotte, something they or their families are likely to have heard in the news.

Doty realizes not all her students are college-bound, but she says they all need Math I.

“The reality is you’re never going to go to the grocery store and need to know how to solve a system of equations,” she said. “But we also are learning problem-solving, we’re learning critical thinking skills, we’re learning just basic number skills, how to think about things, how to reason through things, see if things make sense.”

Last year, 75% of Providence students passed the Math I exam, compared with 36% statewide and 29% in CMS.

Growth is the new goalpost

The growth index can cut the other way, too. Alexander Graham Middle School in Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School, both located in affluent parts of close-in Charlotte, saw growth ratings plunge this year, dropping them from a C to a D and landing both of them on the state’s low-performing list.

Superintendent Crystal Hill says this year the focus will be on growth for all schools.

“We must accelerate the growth of our students, especially among our diverse groups of students,” Hill said. “All of our schools must exceed growth this school year.”

Hill said that whether last week’s data release brought cause for celebration or dismay, schools need to quickly shift their focus to the year ahead.

Deputy Superintendent Melissa Balknight said schools that need the most improvement have district support teams stationed there to make sure strong instruction started on the first day.

“That will continue throughout the school year that they will have a core district team at their school multiple days of the week,” with someone on hand to coach the principals as well, Balknight said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.