Usually, excellence at a school is easy to see.
In the case of Sheffield Area Middle High School this year, however, the state's primary designation for success or failure is hiding some good news.
The school did not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the 2011-2012 school year. The school is in the warning designation after meeting 12 of 14 targets.
The two unsatisfactory areas were related to graduation rates. In 2011, the school graduated 81.82 percent of all seniors and 81.13 percent of all white, non-Hispanic students. The target for both groups was 85 percent. According to Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel, the difference between making the AYP graduation target was "one to two kids."
Those kids were not part of the most recent graduating class. "Our graduation rate for the class of 2012 was over 94 percent," Principal Amy Beers said.
The problem has been addressed, and administrators are not making light of the failure to meet AYP nor of the importance of graduation.
However, they would like to focus some attention on the school's performance on other areas of the AYP review.
"What's important is, when it comes to our AYP status, everything's black or white," Beers said. "Either you made it or you didn't make it. The black or white version of that is, no, we didn't."
At Monday night's meeting of the Warren County School District's board of directors, Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel referred to "invisible excellence" at Sheffield.
"If you take a look at the improvement, you will see that Sheffield improved in reading over 20 percent in the last two years," he said. "That is the growth that we're hoping to see."
There is still room to grow. The school achieved AYP with a reading score of 70.2 percent proficient or advanced. That is well short of the state target of 81 percent, but qualifies for AYP through the Safe Harbor special exception. Safe Harbor allows schools that show a 10 percent decrease in students who perform at the basic and below basic levels to make AYP.
Administrators expect that the improvements in reading will lead to an increase in the graduation rate.
"Graduation rate across the district is being looked at," Hufnagel said. "The state requires a rate of 85 percent. This goal is more than attainable."
In fact, Sheffield has already locked up that portion of the AYP requirements for 2012-2013. "I already know, because I've looked at that data, my school makes AYP for graduation rate for next year," Beers said.
"To make sure we have a graduation rate of at least 85 percent we added additional duties to our school social worker to include drop-out prevention," Hufnagel said. "We are also looking at what factors lead a child to dropping out and seeing what we can do to help identify these risk factors early in a child's educational career."
"We know a high risk factor for dropping out is academic achievement," Hufnagel said. "Linked to academic achievement is a child's ability to read. If our children can not read at grade level by the time they reach the end of third grade, then there is a good chance that they will struggle academically throughout their school career, increasing the chance that the child will give up and drop out of school. With this thought, by providing a better curriculum and finding ways to improve our literacy rate in our primary students, we will lower the dropout rate over time because we are taking away one of the largest risk factors."
"There are a multitude of reasons that students leave school," Beers said. "Sometimes it's just unavoidable."
That doesn't mean she accepts drop-outs.
"I take it very personally. It's my job to find a solution," she said. "I know the teachers here take it extremely personally."
The school didn't make AYP, but the people inside the building are not dwelling on that.
Scores are up. The graduation rate is up.
"The students that go to this school didn't do anything (wrong)," Beers said. "This school has gone up 20 percent in test scores in the past two years."
Any stigma attached to the school for its AYP status is an external problem. "You won't feel it here in this building," Beers said. "I worry about the school having a stigma for not making AYP for graduation, because they don't know what these students have done in the last two years."
"There is nothing the students who go to this school today could have done to avoid this," she said.