After hearing Forest Park Middle School Principal Karen Bukowski discuss a school improvement plan at last week’s District 91 board meeting, the leaders of the district praised the plan but wondered whether it was possible for the school to boost its test scores enough to make the grade under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Forest Park Middle School has failed to meet the performance goals of the federal education act for two consecutive years. The law requires any school that doesn’t meet the goals to submit a school improvement plan.

In 2009, two populations within the middle school failed to meet “adequate yearly progress” standards – black students and students with disabilities. Fifty-nine percent of black students at the middle school scored at or above state standards on the annual Iowa Scholastic Achievement Test. However, for a school to have made adequate yearly progress in 2009, 70 percent of students must score at or above grade level. That benchmark is true for student sub-groups such as black students and students with disabilities.

This year, 76 percent of students will have to score at or above grade level in order for the school to meet the mandates.

Superintendent Lou Cavallo said he is confident the middle school would continue its recent trend of improving test scores, but admitted he didn’t know whether scores would improve enough to meet the benchmarks in 2010.

“The middle school has continued to improve its test scores, but the bar keeps going up,” Cavallo said.

School board president Frank Mott also doubted that the middle school could improve enough to meet the federal goals.

“Based on the Iowa’s we’re not going to get there,” Mott said. “There’s a shot, but I’m very confident that the percentage that does meet or exceed will be higher than it was last year. Whether it’s high enough to meet adequate yearly progress, I don’t know.”

The school improvement plan sets the admittedly ambitious goal of having 80 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state standards in math and reading.

A key component of the school’s improvement plan is the introduction of block scheduling for math and science for seventh-graders.

Instead of meeting for each subject 42 minutes a day, teachers would now have an uninterrupted 84 minute period entirely for math or for science during the school day. A class could have one 84 minute math class one day – with no science class – and the next day could be an 84 minute science class and no math. It will be up to teachers to determine how best to use the 84 minute block of time each day, according to administrators.

The block schedule cuts down on the wasted time at the start of classes as students settle in, school officials said.

“This allows for longer hands-on instructional time,” Bukowski said. “This way, instead of maybe 20 to 25 minutes of hands-on, they’re getting over an hour of hands-on straight through.”

Another element of the school improvement plan involves the use of physical tools to help teach math concepts such as fractions.

“Fractions are an area our students struggle with,” Bukowski said.

Emphasis will be placed on developing student’s critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills. The school improvement plan also includes online programs in math and reading.

Teachers will meet one-on-one with students to assess progress in reading. The school is asking students to read for at least 20 minutes a night at home.

A diagnostic resource consultant will work with students who need extra help in math and reading.

The school improvement plan also targets behavioral improvements with the school’s Positive Behavioral Intervention System, which focuses on reinforcing good behavior through small rewards such as ice cream at lunch or a relaxed final period at the end of the day. The goal is to reduce discipline infractions by 20 percent.

The peer mentoring program at the middle school continues to expand with 138 students now involved.

Mott, the board president, said he was impressed with the plan.

“This is a much better strategic plan than was presented in November,” Mott said. “It has a much better chance of achieving our goals.”