Our Views: Janesville report card deserves applause

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Janesville School District has reason to celebrate. As The Gazette reported Wednesday, the state’s new report card gave the district high marks.

The district’s score of 74.8 put it in the “exceeds expectations” category. That score was highest in Rock County and higher than those in big districts in Walworth County. Janesville topped Madison, Sun Prairie and Verona—which are districts that Janesville officials often use for comparisons—and many districts of similar size around the state.

It’s admirable that Craig and Parker high schools, Janesville’s three middle schools and most elementary schools scored higher than on last year’s report cards. The state also recently recognized seven Janesville schools for good test scores despite significant poverty.  School staffers, students, parents and the entire community should applaud the district’s accomplishments.

One of the most noteworthy achievements came out of Wilson Elementary. This Fourth Ward school faces challenges that include the district’s highest poverty rate and language barriers. Critics have suggested that Wilson is failing its students. Yet Wilson’s report card score of 67.6 jumped nearly six points—most of any local school—and moved it into the “meets expectations” category.

Wilson Principal Kim Peerenboom deserves much credit but praised the hard work of teachers, who she says exceeded her expectations. She said teachers make sure students don’t just get the right answers but can explain how they got them to ensure they understand material. She sees student attitudes, confidence and excitement rising.

Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking the report card means Janesville academics are superior to all of the above districts. That’s not necessarily the case. It does mean Janesville is doing the right things and progressing in areas the state values.

Report cards measure math and reading test scores over three years. They gauge student improvement from year to year. They review whether schools narrow achievement gaps for poor and minority students and those with disabilities. They check attendance, graduation rates, ACT scores and participation, and reading and math scores in lower grades to consider whether students are ready for college or work after high school. Districts lose points for absenteeism, dropout rates or low test participation.

The report cards thus offer a broader impression of a district than test scores alone. By these measures, things are looking good here.

Superintendent Karen Schulte credits the district’s focus on evidence-based leadership. The Studer Group enacted this program a few years ago. Janesville native Quint Studer donated consulting work to the district to instill the same principles his company used to raise excellence at medical companies.

District staffers are juggling many initiatives, such as tougher discipline standards, making algebra the focus of eighth-grade math and Project Redesign to improve curriculum at the high schools. All raise expectations.

That’s good because Schulte and Director of Instruction Kim Ehrhardt want the district to move into the “significantly exceeds expectations” category—scoring 83 or higher—within five years. Schulte says the goal is to be best in the state.

That’s laudable, but about 80 of the state’s 425 districts topped Janesville’s score. Most were small, affluent or with few minorities. To think Janesville could leap all might be unrealistic. Being best among bigger districts might be a more reasonable goal.

This year’s report card bodes well not just for families living here but for Janesville’s future. Quality schools are a priority when families consider moves and when companies consider relocating or expanding. The Janesville School District has raised its quality and is positioning itself for an even better future.

These, indeed, are worth celebrating.

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