After two straight years of being labeled as a failing school, Edinburgh school officials needed to re-evaluate how effective their teaching was.

Edinburgh Middle School had received an F grade from the state two years in a row — the only Johnson County school to get the state’s lowest grade in more than five years — and nearly half of the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students were not passing the ISTEP.

“Certainly, our community doesn’t want to see everybody else having As and Bs, and us having an F a couple years in a row,” high school and middle school principal Kevin Rockey said.

“I don’t either, and neither do our kids.”

So school officials put together a plan to improve scores, drill math concepts into students’ minds and increase their reading comprehension.

The first step was to find ways to improve English and math scores for the school’s nearly 200 students. Two years ago, more than 33 percent of Edinburgh middle school students failed the English portion of the ISTEP exam, while more than 28 percent did not pass the math section, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Last year, students’ scores stayed low with nearly 60 percent of students failing the math portion of the exam.

Schools’ letter grades are partly based on those scores, along with students’ academic improvement from previous years.

Since the 2013-14 school year, Edinburgh Middle School has received an F grade from the Indiana Department of Education. Under state law, if a school earns an F in six consecutive years, it could face being taken over by the state. The state gives schools guidance on how to improve and also monitors schools that get a D or F letter grade for three years, making sure the school is improving and state officials can help as needed, said Katie Brennan, director of outreach for the department of education.

An F grade was a surprise to administrators and teachers, Rockey said. Teachers thought their students were learning, but the ISTEP scores showed differently. In the 2013-14 ISTEP exam, 80 students — or more than 40 percent of the school’s student body — failed the ISTEP.

“I think everyone was generally surprised that we got that kind of grade,” Rockey said.

But Rockey said the rating is not a fair depiction of what learning is happening. And the grade doesn’t take into account other unique factors that Edinburgh schools are facing, he said. For example, nearly 20 percent of Edinburgh’s student body are special needs students, so the school district needs to provide more specialized teachers and coaches for those children. In addition, more than 66 percent of students’ families have a low enough income to receive free or reduced-price lunches, compared to a range of 20 to 46 percent at other local school districts.

“We are not an F school. We have been categorized as an F school because of our math and English, but we do so many things to take care of kids,” Rockey said. “To me, that’s why we do this. Not to worry about standardized test scores.”

“We’re focusing on math above other things, but meanwhile, we can’t stop doing all those other things that are important. My role is to build relationships with those kids.”

Still, school officials knew they had to make changes. During the past two years, a leadership team comprised of teachers, students and administrators was created to see what could be changed, without dropping any aspect of school that students enjoy. For example, Rockey wanted to focus on raising math scores, but he still wanted students to have the opportunity for band, choir or elective courses, he said.

One significant change was to require every seventh and eighth grade student to take two English classes, one focused on language arts while the other challenges students in critical reading comprehension, he said.

The school got rid of special events, such as pep rallies or assemblies, so students wouldn’t lose instructional time, Rockey said. And school officials wanted to use every possible minute of the school day for instruction, and having extra math lessons squeezed in wherever they could.

A 20-minute homeroom period, which typically was used for checking students’ grades or school-wide announcements, was turned into a mini math class, Rockey said.

Every day of the week, teachers have a specific goal for that homeroom period, whether it’s going over that week’s math lesson or algebraic definitions. On Tuesdays, students and teachers from each grade level meet in a large instruction room so the math teachers can emphasize a certain concept or equation that will be included on the ISTEP exam, Rockey said.

“We’ll take a standard a week and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to focus on,’” Rockey said. “It makes us all accountable and it lets the kids know that we’re all in this together.”

At the end of each week, students are given a quiz about that week’s math concept so administrators can gauge what was learned or if more remediation is needed.

All teachers are helping make sure the school’s grades improve, Rockey said.

Every teacher is expected to incorporate math into their lesson plans, from science to gym to choir, he said.

In health and history teacher Rick Bechtel’s classes, he’ll usually teach his regular lesson for the majority of the period, then switch to what he calls ISTEP prep — when he reviews math definitions or concepts with the students, Bechtel said.

“We have to go a little deeper with our critical thinking skills because that’s what they’re wanting,” Bechtel said. “Kids have responded well to what we’re trying to do.”

Teachers are being asked to incorporate more difficult reading materials in class, beyond what their textbook includes, Bechtel said. And every teacher must submit weekly lesson plans to administrators, which was not required in the past, so officials can see how they are including additional math and English concepts in class, Rockey said.

And at the end of each class, teachers are expected to show what students learned that day, Rockey said. Teachers can ask students to raise their hand to answer a question about what they learned, or give a quiz. That way, teachers are held accountable for what they taught during the day, Rockey said.

“We’re trying to find that balance, and not panic, but react appropriately,” Rockey said.

But teachers and administrators have to wait until at least this summer, when ISTEP scores are released, to see if the changes they made this school year have been effective.

Depending on how scores change this school year, administrators will see if some of their changes are more better than others, he said. Rockey hopes the school’s ISTEP scores will improve this school year, but he does not anticipate going from an F school to an A grade within a school year, he said.

“I’d be happier with a D than an F, but I wouldn’t be satisfied,” Rockey said. “I won’t be satisfied until we get to be an A school.”

The changes they made

Here is a look at some changes Edinburgh school officials made to try to address academic achievement:

During the 20-minute homeroom period, each day of the week has a different academic lesson included, such as going over tougher math problems, definitions or lessons and checking students’ grades

Students are required to take a second English class, so one course could focus on language arts while the other is for reading comprehension

Every Tuesday, students in each grade level meet in a large classroom with teachers to go over math lessons

Every teacher is given specific math-based lessons, definitions or theories to go over in class, including in health, science, or social studies

Students are given a test during their homeroom class to see if they learned that week’s math lesson

On a weekly basis, all teachers have to turn in their lesson plans

All teachers are expected to have some way to prove that their students understood their lesson that day, such as though a quiz, a question at the end of the class period, or a show of hands from students