Russell County Middle School is the only local school among the 78 in Alabama considered "failing," according to a new state law.
The schools on the Alabama Department of Education's failing list, which was released Tuesday, could lose students and corresponding state funding if parents transfer their children and seek the state income tax credit the law allows to help them pay for such a move.
The state legislature approved the controversial school choice law, called the Alabama Accountability Act, this year. It provides a credit of about $3,500 annually for transfers from failing schools to private schools or a non-failing public school.
Russell County Middle School principal Almesha Patrick said she isn't bracing for transfers. She said the only calls she received Wednesday from parents were about orientation for next school year. In fact, she added, RCMS is expected to increase its enrollment from 610 students in May to 640 in August.
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Patrick acknowledged her school isn't performing as it should, but she objects to the "failing" designation and criticizes the accountability system.
"You don't look at one test score and say a school is failing," she said. "You look at student engagement and parental involvement too. I believe they took one little snippet and unfairly classified a whole group of schools."
Patrick noted RCMS has improved five of the past six years on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test, but that doesn't matter in the accountability system. She also said the system is set up to always have failing schools because it doesn't designate a standard to meet; instead, the state's failing schools are defined as those that rank in the bottom 6 percent on the ARMT in at least three of the past six years. So the state's schools compete against each other academically as well as athletically.
"It's like grading on a bell curve," Patrick said. "It's cutthroat."
Patrick has been principal for seven years at RCMS, which had 72 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch in 2012-13.
"My teachers do an awesome job with our students," she said, "but a lot of them have parents who don't necessarily have the resources they need when they are struggling."
RCMS' improvement effort has included:
Switching from a seven-period day to six periods to spend more time in class and less in the hallways.
Teacher training through the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and the Alabama Reading Initiative.
Rewarding students with more extracurricular activities, such as social time or a fashion show.