Top Ranked Montana Schools
Perhaps you’ve seen, or heard, Gardiner MT is a top rated school in the state of Montana. For the last several years Gardiner has been ranked #1 by U.S. News and World Report. While this is certainly something to be proud of, what does it mean? Where does it come from? How is it determined? And will it continue?
US News and World Report starts with six ranking indicators, the first of which is College Readiness and it accounts for the largest single portion (30%) of the ranking. In their own words:
“The College Readiness Index, or CRI, is measured by the proportion of a school's 12th graders that took and passed AP/IB exams.”
Lone Peak is an IB or International Baccalaureate school, one of only four in the state of MT to offer a diploma program. Also, they are the smallest school to offer the program thus skewing the percentage of students completing the program when compared to a school such as Kalispell or Hellgate High in Missoula. Much like our size, and the fact that we offer 3 in house Advanced Placement courses, which is unlike most other class C schools, skews our percentage of students taking AP exams. This is important as it is the indicator given the single most weight in this ranking. It also helps that our teachers teaching our AP courses do an extraordinary job preparing our students to pass the AP exams at a rate (79%), well above the national average.
Next is College Curriculum Breadth (10%), which measures the percentage of seniors who took and passed multiple AP exams. Our first AP course is offered to sophomores. When 33% or so of our students take an AP exam every year, it is likely that they are also taking multiple AP exams in their career. Furthermore, state assessments, graduation rate and the performance of underserved students (minorities, low income, etc.) round out the other 60%.
In other words, our students, given the opportunity to take AP exams at a Class “C” school unlike many of their counterparts, do very well thanks to their individual hard work, excellent teachers, and supportive parents. They also perform well as a whole group on state assessments, and they graduate. All very much to be proud of.
Once again, due to our declining enrollment, change is coming. To even be considered for ranking a school must have a senior class of 15 students or more.
“U.S. News ranked 17,245 public high schools out of more than 23,000 reviewed. This is the count of public high schools that had a 12th grade enrollment of 15 or greater, ...Schools without a grade 12 or with very small enrollment are simply displayed as Unranked.”
This year’s graduating class, the class of 2020 is one of 3 classes in the school meeting the 15 member threshold. Gardiner Schools, unless things change, will be an unranked school more often than not as we move forward into the future.
As we would all rather be ranked high in whatever we do, somethings are out of our control. Being proud of this ranking is one thing, keeping it in perspective, realizing its true meaning, and how unrelated it is to any changes in our school is another. As change has been constant, and more is inevitable, we all have a choice to make; put all of our stock into this one ranking as it leaves us, or define our success differently.
Twenty five years ago, I applied for a job as an assistant football coach in Alberton MT, roughly 45 miles west of Missoula MT. As I walked into the school I couldn’t stop smiling, I had been to “small” schools before, but this was my first experience with Class “C” Montana. My experience in Alberton encouraged me to go back to school and become a teacher. Ever since that time I have spent the majority of my life in Class “C” sized schools throughout the west. Each one had their own unique challenges and strengths. What they had in common is that they have been able to produce lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers as well as college basketball, volleyball, and football players and let’s not forget about the ranchers, farmers, electricians, and plumbers.
Class “C” Montana was not my experience growing up and most likely as a parent/guardian of a Gardiner School student, it wasn’t your experience either. And, if you are a long time resident or at least a 10 year resident, your experience with Gardiner School has been, that it is changing. Changing, it most definitely is. Often when I hear about these changes, it is in a negative light. And, while some things are lost there is much to gain. Most Class “C” schools don’t have the advantage of sending their kids to a school to work program with anyone, let alone with Xanterra and the National Park Service. Most Class “C” schools don’t have in house Advanced Placement (AP) courses; we offer 3 (AP) courses as well as a Dual Credit (DC) course.
As our funding has become equalized with other Class “C” schools in the state we are more like other rural Montana schools. And rural schools face some definite disadvantages, however as we will find out, Gardiner is special once again.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Section 5005 Report of Rural Education:
“While rural students perform well on some measures compared to their peers in other locales, other measures indicate rural areas may be falling behind. Rural fourth- and eighth-grade students outperformed their counterparts in cities and towns on NCES’s 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading. However, there was no significant difference between rural students’ performance and those of their peers in cities and towns on the 12th-grade assessments in mathematics and reading.”
Secondly, the study found:
“The percentage of rural adults 25 and over who have graduated from high school is roughly equal to the national average and exceeds those of city and town adults. Yet the percentage of adults in cities and suburbs who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher exceeds the percentage of rural adults with this level of education by more than 10 percentage points.”
While I don’t have the empirical data to back it up, I don’t believe this is true of Gardiner School students and parents. However, as the park has fewer families sending their children to school and the year round population changes from that of families to retirees and vacation rental homeowners, this is something that is subject to change. We may already be seeing this shift occurring. If we are, the news is good; our test data has not fluctuated significantly as one may conclude it would from the Department of Education’s findings.
Another concern outlined in the report was:
“While rural LEAs face many of the same obstacles confronting urban districts (such as high rates of childhood poverty, difficulty recruiting and retaining effective teachers and administrators, and limited access to quality health care), these challenges frequently can be exacerbated by the remoteness and small size of rural districts.”
Poverty seems to be the great indicator of lower academics. While it doesn’t guarantee lower academic achievement, it is a major hurdle. One of the metrics used to indicate poverty in a school is the percentage of students on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The national average approaches 50%, with Montana at about 40%. Gardiner has always had a low Free and Reduced Lunch count, and currently sits around 10%. Teacher retention, until the most recent opening for a music teacher, has not been an issue as our entire staff consists of tenured teachers. That is, all staff have at least four years teaching experience in the district. Without doing the math, it would be easy to estimate that our “average” teacher has closer to 12 to 15 years experience in the district. Consistency among teachers and administration has significant impact on student performance, as the expectations, goals, and vision of the school/classroom remain the same.
“Other difficulties typically unique to rural areas include transportation challenges resulting from longer distances between students’ homes and their schools; fewer career options and apprenticeship opportunities for students”
As I mentioned earlier, Gardiner is clearly in a different position when it comes to these opportunities than other Class “C” schools. We have students working in Xanterra shops, in NPS shops, with NPS scientists, at the Heritage Center, and with community businesses. Imagine the opportunity to do real time science with NPS employees. We are going out of our way to create and allow these opportunities as they present themselves.
“ the inability to attract, train, and retain teachers and principals in communities with fewer amenities and activities than urban and suburban areas”
This is yet another retention issue, one that hopefully like for most of us our interests align with our amazing setting, and our “place” does the recruiting. Many of our previous applicants, applied in part due to the outdoor opportunities Gardiner presents. This will be a trend that continues, but I don’t believe will overcome the national teacher shortage, especially in hard to fill areas such as music, special education, and the like.
“a tax base more susceptible to fluctuations caused by changes in local and regional economic conditions; and an inability to offer advanced courses that better prepare students for college and careers.”
Once again Gardiner is unique, as our tax base seems to be more stable than say a community relying mainly on logging, farming, or mining. The park remains a stable attraction that keeps our community relatively stable by comparison. As far as the advance courses, as mentioned earlier we do offer both AP and DC courses. Currently, we have 3 AP and 1 DC courses. We have attempted to offer 2 other DC courses in science, but due to the lack of interest on student behalf have not been able to go through with teaching those courses. Attached to this newsletter you will find the most current Gardiner School AP test data. A “passing” score (3) on AP exams is achieved by roughly 60% of students taking AP exams, and it is estimated that about 25% of students take an AP exam. As you can see we far exceed the passing rate, and 19 out of 65 total high school students took AP tests last year. That exceeds the 25% of all high school students that eventually take an AP test. I did not calculate what percentage of our students that graduate take at least one AP course, but seeing that over 25% of our entire school took one AP class last year it would be easy to estimate we exceed the national average.
“Adding to these challenges is the reality that each rural community is distinct. There are vast contrasts between and among rural communities in different states, and even within states. Communities in Appalachian West Virginia are very different from those in the Nevada desert. Circumstances in the mountains of western Colorado vary greatly from those in the plains of the eastern part of the state. Some rural communities are among the poorest in the nation, while others lack sufficient workers to fill the available jobs. Rural communities occupy every point on the boom-and-bust cycle. “Rural” is not a monolith but a compilation of thousands of unique communities and circumstances.”
My experience and most likely your experience were not like what our kids in Gardiner have today. Judging success on our preconceived notion of what school should be is not a fair standard. Our students enjoy the benefits of forming meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers. I have actually had students come from large school to Gardiner only to tell me that students are not supposed to talk with their principal, because that is a bad thing. Gardiner School may not be what your school or my school was, it may not even be the school it was 10 years ago, but it offers everything a student needs to succeed beyond high school whether it be in career or college, and a whole lot that no other school in the country can offer.
Next week is Homecoming Week!!
City of Stars
Monday- Athlete Vs. Nerd
Wednesday- Celeb Couple or Twin
Thursday- Bruin Spirit
Homecoming is a week of celebration for our school pride. Go Bruins!
Welcome to the first monthly Gardiner Bruins Newsletter!
As “Principal with Superintendent Duties,” I will be serving as acting Superintendent while maintaining some of my principal duties. This is one of several staffing changes at Gardiner School. Ms. Shelby Jones who has been teaching 7th-12th grade science for the last seven years will be combining some of those classes and passing other classes on to other certified teachers to free herself to serve as Dean of Students. In this role, Shelby will be dealing with student disciplinary issues, serving as Advanced Placement Testing Coordinator, and helping submit state reports. With Shelby’s change of position, Mrs. Lori Hoppe will be combining 7th and 8th graders and teaching AgriScience. This class meets the life science standards set forth by the State of Montana and the NextGen Science Standards. Attached you will find a list of those standards. In addition to these changes of roles, Carmen Harbach will take on the Activities Director duties and Shelby Coy will be our new Transportation Director as well as Valley Bus Route Driver.
All of these changes and the changes in school class offerings, were set into action with the resignation of former Superintendent Randy Russell. Mr. Russell, knowing that likely changes to administrative staff were coming due to budget challenges, chose to be proactive and accepted a position in the Billings School District. That news came in early August with the Board making decisions on how to proceed at their August 15th board meeting. With students arriving on the 22nd, challenging decisions had to be made. In addition, with the resignation of David Sheerin in late spring, we waited as long as we could for a music teacher to apply as about half the high school signs up for band class. This vacancy had some pretty large impacts on our daily class schedule.
As an update to the music position vacancy, we did ultimately receive an application for a music teacher. This came in during the first full week of school. Even though there would have been some substantial work and changes to schedules, we pursued this applicant, going so far as to have housing lined up and ready thanks to a local landowner. Even with housing available, our applicant decided to go a different route and pursue another teaching opportunity. We will continue our search because having a quality K-12 music program is of the highest priority not only for the district but for me personally. In the meantime, our elementary staff have stepped up to provide musical experiences for our students K-6, and some opportunities for our secondary students interested in Pep Band and Choral experiences have been created during the Study Hall period thanks to volunteer help.
Another change is that several elementary classrooms have been combined for afternoon classes. This serves two purposes. First, it allows our teachers already on staff to teach some specials classes such as Physical Education, Art, and Guidance. Secondly, it prepares teachers for the likelihood of combined elementary classrooms in the future. Currently, our elementary enrollment is as follows:
First Grade 11
Second Grade 8
Third Grade 11
Fourth Grade 13
Fifth Grade 8
Sixth Grade 12
As you can see only one combination would create a classroom of over 20 students. The current classroom combinations come due to the small class sizes, but are also due to a budget deficit that exists in the elementary budget. With the changes made two years ago and now with the administrative changes, the high school budget is balanced.
With over 20 years of experience in class C sized schools where combined elementary classrooms and limited high school offerings are the norm, I assure you, continued academic excellence is not only possible but probable because of the individualized instruction students receive. There are a multitude of studies showing the benefits of smaller class sizes. Further, we are providing our students with some very unique opportunities not always available in larger schools. Currently we have two students doing real life science with park scientists (look for more information on this later); we have a growing and pertinent School to Work program; and we tailor academic schedules to accommodate our students as they need. Plus, we have a quality teaching staff that provides excellent in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences unique to our students in Gardiner.
We all have our own school experiences, and likely they all vary significantly. These changes at Gardiner Schools have been quick, and perhaps difficult to process. But, they by no means indicate any less of an opportunity for our students to receive a high quality educational experience. In my next newsletter I will address some of the reasons rural schools struggle and how Gardiner is not your typical rural school.
Do not hesitate to reach out to me with any questions or concerns you may have. We are off to a great start to our school year with your children’s enthusiasm and your positive support!
Agriscience Standards https://www.case4learning.org/images/2017StandardsAlignment/AFNR_NGSS_Standards_Alignment.pdf