2007-12-20 / News

NKHS ranked in top 3 percent of the nation's high schools

By Michaela Kennedy

Jamestown youths now have proof they graduate from high school with an excellent public education. The island's school of record, North Kingstown High School, has been awarded a national "silver medal" standing, announced by U.S. News and World Report last week.

Principal Gerald Foley was "not overly surprised" by the commendation that ranked North Kingstown in the top 3 percent best-performing high schools across the country. "The school has always had a good reputation," said Foley, who has been principal at the high school for the last 16 years. The school is also a Regents' Commended school recognized by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDOE), he added.

The America's Best High Schools project, developed by Standard & Poor's (S&P) School Evaluation Services, analyzed academic and enrollment data from more than 18,000 public high schools to find the very best across the country. These top schools were placed into gold, silver, or bronze medal categories. Barrington and Classical High Schools also made the silver standing, but no schools in the state were awarded gold status. This year was the first publication of the comprehensive survey of public schools, according to Foley.

The ultimate ranking for each school was based on a "college readiness" index, on which Classical scored 32.6. Barrington received 26.7, and North Kingstown 24.8. North Kingstown's standardized test scores averaged over 90 percent.

The evaluation services developed the America's Best High School project for a special publication in U.S. News & World Report. The top-performing schools selection method was created in response to the Challenge Index that ranks the best high schools for Newsweek.

The Challenge Index relies simply on advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) test data. But the goal of S&P's project is to provide a clear, unbiased picture of how well public schools serve all of their students, from the highest achieving to the lowest achieving, in preparing them to demonstrate proficiency in basic skills and in readiness for college-level work.

The S&P's methodology used by U.S. News values how well a high school performs on state testing overall, how "disadvantaged" populations perform and the depth and breadth of AP programs offered. "We have always had a strong number of AP courses and number of students enrolled in them, as would many schools that are similar to us demographically," Assistant Principal Timothy Chace noted. "But our performance on state testing sets us apart from many other schools."

State tests focus primarily on reading, writing, mathematics and problem solving. Chace, who has been at North Kingstown for three years, said that focus on those areas was strong before he worked there. But he also said that, in 2003, the school was designated as "low-performing and not improving" by the Rhode Island Department of Education, based on state test scores. "There may have been some degree of complacency back then. We were getting by with our best and brightest."

As the school's percentages rose, more was expected. "When we failed to continue the progress that was required by No Child Left Behind, many people felt that ranking was not in line with where our school belonged, and the culture of achievement that is prevalent in our school necessitated that we do something about that," Chace recalled.

Chace, who leads the School Improvement Team, reported that the targets missed in 2003 were related to the performance of Special Education students in mathematics. "That caused us to really look at the standards on the state tests and examine how well we were able to deliver the expected standards to all of our students." Chace gave credit to Barbara Morse, "our amazing department chair and the rest of the math department" who worked to design the "Algebra with Lab" course. The specialized course involves one day of traditional algebra instruction followed by another day of focused instruction to support the previous day's taught concepts.

According to Chace, the passing rate in the course has been steady at around 80 percent since then. "Last year we had four more sections of students in Algebra II than we have ever had before. That's 100 kids in a year. In many cases, these were students who came to the high school with significant gaps in their mathematics achievement, and many of those students receive special education services or come from homes that face pretty significant socioeconomic struggles," he explained.

Momentum was created to examine education practices and to create new ways to teach fundamental skills. Educators and administrators examined exactly what was expected from standardized testing and whether or not it was taught well to all children. "We try to not leave student performance to chance anymore at NK. We look at the assessment data meticulously and work with the department heads to ensure that our kids are being taught the knowledge, concepts, and skills articulated in state and district standards, as well as those measured in the state assessments," Chace said.

Chace emphasized there are no magic secrets to sustaining a well-run school. From an administrative standpoint, he pointed out that everything the school does is geared towards improving student achievement. "It requires hard work by your School Improvement Team, your teachers and your administrators to keep improving when you are at an already very high level."

William "Bucky" Brennan, Jamestown liaison for the North Kingstown School Committee, always felt the school offered "tons of opportunities." He praised the "excellent" sports program in which his two children participate. "The sports helped make an easy transition into the high school," Brennan noted.

Brennan attributed part of the success of the high school to the diversity found in North Kingstown. "It's a better facility and more diverse than Barrington," he said.

More about the report and school results may be viewed online at www.schoolmatters.com.

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