For the second straight year, Russell County Middle School is the only local school considered "failing," according to the Alabama State Department of Education.
But according to the principal and her school's test scores, the middle school should be on a list of the state's improving schools, caught on the treadmill of a tough, new law.
Russell County Middle School is among the 76 schools on the 2014 "Failing Schools" list, as defined by the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013. Last year, the state slapped 78 schools with the ignominious tag.
Schools are placed on the list for one of two reasons:
Being among the lowest-performing 6 percent of schools on the state's standardized reading and math tests during at least three of the past six years. Russell County Middle School is one of 70 schools in this category.
Being labeled "persistently low-performing," according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant. Fourteen schools are in this category, but eight of them also are counted in the other category.
The problem for schools such as Russell County Middle School is that even if they improve their performance, the bottom 6 percent always are going to be considered "failing" schools. And even if schools rise above that threshold in a given year, they must do it in four of the previous six years to get off the "failing" list.
Russell County Middle School, which comprises grades 7-8, has seen its combined reading and math scores on the state's standardized tests climb above the bottom 6 percent each of the past two years. In fact, the percentage of Russell County Middle School students passing those tests has zoomed from 56 percent in 2009 to 73 percent in 2013.
Nonetheless, the school still must bear the "failing" label.
"We could have scored in the 100th percentile, and we still would have been on that list," said Almesha Patrick, in her eighth year as principal.
Malissa Valdes-Hubert, a spokeswoman for the state's education department, said Alabama Superintendent Tommy Bice has called for amending the accountability act to account for school improvement, but no legislator has been convinced to file such a bill yet.
Besides marring reputations, appearing on the "failing" list means the school could lose students and corresponding state funding. Parents may transfer their children and seek the state income tax credit the law allows to help them pay for such a move. The controversial school choice law provides a credit of about $3,500 annually to transfer from a failing school to a private school or a non-failing public school.
Patrick recalled only "one or two" parents asking her about a transfer from 580-student Russell County Middle School. "But once we explain they don't get that money as cash in hand, that it's a tax credit, they don't call back," she said. "We haven't had anyone pick up a form."
The principal has seen, however, her teachers pick up their focus. Despite funding cuts reducing money for professional development, Patrick said her teachers have created "communities of learners" who take time on their own to research and learn new strategies to help their students.
"We're doing all we can, and we're improving every year," she said, "but we're still considered a failing school."