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Test scores up despite rising poverty

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As area families’ incomes have dropped over the years, school officials worried children from those families would start to struggle with schoolwork.

Typically, when a family’s income falls, so do a student’s grades and test scores. This has nothing to do with the student’s intelligence — but if parents are working odd hours or multiple jobs to pay their bills, they don’t always have time to work with their children on homework, according to Cameron Rains, Clark-Pleasant director of curriculum and instruction.

Parents who struggle to pay their bills also don’t usually have money to pay for tutors or educational programs outside of class, school officials have said.

“I’ve never met any parent who doesn’t want to do what’s best for their kid. But when one parent has the opportunity to provide that based on their schedule, and the other doesn’t, it creates kind of an unlevel playing field,” Rains said.

During the past seven years for which data are available, more Johnson County families have fallen into a low-income category.

Since 2007, the rates of students who were receiving free or reduced-price lunches from schools have jumped. Students are eligible for the discount when their family’s income falls near the poverty line. For a family of four, that’s $43,568. Last school year, between 44 and 47 percent of Clark-Pleasant, Franklin and Greenwood students were a part of the program.

Sixty-four percent of Edinburgh students were living at or near poverty, the most in the county, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

At the same time parents’ incomes were dropping, school officials were looking for ways to provide the kind of individual help students needed but couldn’t always get outside school. The extra help schools provide helps students perform better on tests.

“We just look at kids individually, whether they’re (on) free and reduced or whether they’re struggling generally,” Franklin assistant superintendent Dave Sever said.

Clark-Pleasant reorganized the schedules at its elementary schools so that teachers in each grade scheduled time for students’ in-class assignments and group work simultaneously. That makes it easier for teachers to provide individual attention to more students, who might not always have someone who can work with them on assignments after school, Rains said.

At Franklin, four of the school district’s five elementary schools receive federal funding to help educate students from low-income families. School officials use that money to pay for teachers and instructors who can work with students having trouble following what’s taught in class, Sever said.

Schools taking extra time to work individually with students on concepts they don’t understand has better prepared the students for ISTEP.

Last school year, 85 percent of Clark-Pleasant’s third- through eighth-graders passed both the math and language arts portions of ISTEP, up from 69 percent of students during the 2006-07 school year. In Franklin, 75 percent of students passed both sections of the test, up from 69 percent seven years ago.

Johnson County’s four other public school districts also saw more students pass both sections of ISTEP despite more students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

“We understand that it is an additional challenge, and we do what we can to ensure every student gets what they need,” Rains said.

At Clark-Pleasant, if 10 fourth-graders in five different classes at an elementary school are having trouble learning multiplication, those students can work with a teacher to review what they don’t understand. That frees the other four teachers to work with students on other lessons and also provides specific, individual help the student might not receive outside school, Rains said.

Franklin teachers also regularly provide individual instruction for students who need it, and some Franklin schools arrange for students to work with the same teacher for consecutive years.

At Northwood Elementary School, where 60 percent of students live at or near the poverty line last school year, students spend two years with the same teacher. That’s helpful because the teacher spends less time analyzing data to see what a student does or doesn’t understand, and the teachers also already know what lessons will best help their students master math and language arts material, Sever said.

While most of Northwood’s students are in the free and reduced-price lunch program, they also have some of the highest ISTEP and IREAD-3 scores in Johnson County. Eighty-nine percent of Northwood’s students passed both math and language arts sections of ISTEP, while 94 passed the IREAD-3 exam, which students must pass before advancing to fourth-grade reading lessons.

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