COLUMBIA — The situation is almost comical.
In August, Douglass High School found out it is a Title I school, meaning it has such a high percentage of students eligible for free and discount lunch that it can draw from a certain pot of government money.
What: A service-learning project called "Empty Bowls," a chili fundraiser for Sol House, a temporary shelter for homeless teens. Douglass High School students are making the chili and the ceramic bowls in which it will be served.
When: From noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 18
Where: Douglass High School cafeteria, 310 N. Providence Road
Cost: $10 minimum donation for the chili and the bowl
And because Douglass had not met a standard of academic proficiency required under the No Child Left Behind Act for two years in a row, that Title I designation meant the school had to offer students the opportunity to transfer to another Columbia high school.
The catch was that the other high school would be required to have met the NCLB benchmark. But neither Rock Bridge nor Hickman high schools, which are the only other public high schools in Columbia, made that goal this year.
And here's why it's almost comical: Douglass is an alternative meant for students who struggle with traditional school environments such as those at Rock Bridge and Hickman. The students at Douglass are there by choice — they apply to be there — and don't want to go to the high schools in their attendance areas.
"The choice option is the part that's ironic," said Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education.
Douglass is different
Douglass is set up to serve its students in a different way than most schools that benefit from NCLB. The school at 310 N. Providence Road has about 300 students, Principal Brian Gaub said. Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools have five to six times that many. With no more than 15 students, class sizes are small enough that Douglass has only one subgroup that can be assessed under NCLB – the total, meaning all students in the school.
Subgroups — race and ethnicity categories, free and discount lunch (or low-income), special education and limited English proficiency — are used to measure test-score disparities among groups of students. Because Douglass is its own subgroup, no disparities can be measured. If there is an achievement gap among students, it can't be seen under NCLB.
Douglass also is the only high school in the district that has a one-semester schedule rather than yearlong classes, so End of Course exams used to measure test-score proficiency for NCLB are given twice a year.
Schools can become Title I several ways, Title I coordinator Mary Humlicek said, but if the percentage of students who qualify for free and discount lunch reaches 75 percent or above, the school becomes Title I automatically.
Every year, on the fourth Wednesday in January, Columbia Public Schools calculates each school’s percentage of students receiving free and discount lunch. Douglass has 78 percent.
Douglass' story starts with a different name, and in a different building, as an all-black school. Now, it shares a building with a preschool and adult career center. Gaub, principal for 12 years, said enrollment fluctuates between semesters because students apply to Douglass but aren't required to stay there once enrolled. The school also offers independent studies and electronic courses.
To enroll at Douglass, students and their legal guardians interview with Gaub after they fill out an application. He said he conducts about 150 interviews per year. Because all Douglass students attend the school by choice and are able to leave at any time, Gaub said he got a few confused calls from parents after the transfer letters were sent before the start of school this year. After explaining the situation, and that the school was required to send out the letters, he didn't encounter any other problems.
"If we didn't know all the families, the letter could've caused more problems," he said. "We're rare in secondary schools because parents already came in and met us."
Douglass is also rare among Missouri alternative schools because the students enroll directly with the school. Many alternative schools in the state let the students remain enrolled at their attendance-area school but educate them in another building. Unlike those schools, NCLB evaluates Douglass the same as Hickman and Rock Bridge.
Under NCLB, each school is considered a subgroup, called total. Each grade is then broken down further into subgroups based on demographic categories. A subgroup must contain 30 exam-taking students. Subgroups are compared against the total to identify achievement gaps.
If one subgroup falls short of the annual yearly progress goal, the whole school does, too. Some elementary schools in Columbia struggle to pass five subgroups, when other schools only have two. Douglass, however, has only the one — total — because End of Course exams are only given to about 15 students in any given subject .
With only one subgroup, Douglass' situation is unique for a school with 69 percent minority enrollment. According to Columbia Public Schools data, the black student population of Douglass is 62.4 percent. That number exceeds the proportion of minority populations in Hickman and Rock Bridge at 34.9 percent and 24.1 percent respectively.
At a Columbia School Board meeting this year, Phil Peters, executive director of the nonprofit education group First Chance for Children, said the city's white students score well above the state average for their group and black students in Columbia score below the state average for their group.
Gaub said NCLB provides beneficial data about achievement gaps within Columbia Public Schools when comparing students throughout the district. This comparison doesn't work between Douglass and traditional high schools, because most of Douglass' students achieve at similar levels regardless of belonging to a specific demographic group.
Douglass has an "at-risk" population, Gaub said, so the main focus is not on college, but on graduating and career preparation, though some go on to two-year colleges or trade schools.
"We have some very, very smart kids, but you don't have that same diversity (found in other high schools)," Gaub said, referring to the comparatively small spectrum of achievement levels.
Achieving through obstacles
The students who attend Douglass often "get a bad rap," said Ginger Donaldson, who teaches English at Douglass. She administers the English II End of Course exam mainly to sophomores, though she teaches juniors and seniors as well.
"These kids are incredibly intelligent," Donaldson said. "They are perfectly capable of going above and beyond."
Donaldson said her students enroll because they work better outside of the classroom or they excel more at hands-on activities than academic ones. Some come because they don't have a supportive person in their life encouraging them to attend class and make good decisions. Some enter with undiagnosed learning disabilities.
These obstacles hinder the success of Donaldson's students in a traditional school environment, but their academic performance defies statistics about how black, Asian, Hispanic or low-income students achieve throughout the district and state. Sometimes her black students perform better in the classroom than her white students, Donaldson said.
To prepare her students for the End of Course exam, she incorporates elements of the test into her regular curriculum. She accumulates short stories, articles and poems, then asks the students to answer a couple questions about them. They also learn to respond to writing prompts by focusing on one paragraph, then adding more, until they can evaluate their own writing. Donaldson wants her students familiar with the types of questions the test will ask.
"It's all a matter of making them feel comfortable while taking it," she said.
Some students excel at skills ignored by the EOC exams, so Donaldson takes her students outside the classroom for service learning projects that develop those skills.
"Our kids are wise beyond their years, based on experience," she said. "On most tests, it doesn't really show their abilities and talents that may be outside that realm."
During the Halloween season, Donaldson's students researched Head Start, a national program that promotes school readiness. One student, who Donaldson called an "incredible artist," drew a coloring book for a local Head Start classroom. The high school students presented it to the classroom, sang a song and read to the younger students. Afterward, they wrote reflection papers about the experience.
Donaldson said she looks forward to the Title I money to continue funding those kinds of service learning projects. The money will also go toward staff development, incentives for attendance and good behavior, software and media center books, and hiring a part-time math teacher for next semester, Gaub said. Title I schools may spend up to $80,000 in a full school year. With only one semester left in the academic year, it's unlikely Douglass will spend that much.
Donaldson said her students are planning a chili fundraiser to raise money for Sol House, a transitional living program for teens and young adults.
"It's a blessing, I think," she said. "I think it's wonderful that we are able to get this money and use it for not only professional development and get X number of kids tutoring and software programs, but other projects."
She envisions a long-term goal of receiving grants for outside-the-classroom projects, in case the Title I money disappears. The funding, though, is the first step.
"It's hard to start if I don't have the money behind it," she said.
For English classes, the school has started using a tutorial software program called Study Island for EOC exam preparation. Douglass' faculty also meets in small groups to discuss new goals and new tools to help students meet those goals. Donaldson is especially excited for the forthcoming professional development training because students learn only as well as the teachers can teach, she said.
With the funding, however, comes a list of possible sanctions for not meeting achievement standards.
"If you are going to be given money, you are going to be held accountable anyway," Donaldson said.
The sanctions start with the option to transfer schools, then escalate to possible replacement of teachers, administrators, curriculum or complete district restructuring. Non-Title I schools do not face any sanctions when they do not meet achievement standards, except the requirement that they create a plan for school improvement.
Douglass submitted its completed plan by Nov. 1, the deadline to receive up to $80,000 in Title I funds. Although he finished the plan on time, Gaub said Douglass administrators lost planning time because they didn't find out about the school's new status until August. He recognizes that more sanctions are possible, but "secondary schools aren't making (the annual test-score benchmark)," not just Douglass.
There are six Title I elementary schools that did not meet achievement standards and were forced to offer school transfers this year. Brown said that "just like all of our schools, Douglass faces restructuring and school improvement."
This month, Douglass students will sit down to English II, Algebra I, American Government and Biology EOC exams for the first time as a Title I school. Regardless of the outcomes, Donaldson feels confident about the high level of education given at Douglass.
"Those tests don't show a whole heck of a lot," said. "We see achievement here on a day-to-day basis."