In 2010, Principal Corey Johnson traveled to Washington D.C. to receive a National Blue Ribbon Award, which recognized Salem Elementary as one of the top performing schools in the country.
Because of its stellar record, many parents will be surprised or confused to learn that Salem Elementary is listed as "Needs Improvement" in literacy and math under the Arkansas Department of Education's new accountability system.
"I met with elementary teachers this week and they are very disappointed that the school is classified as "Needs Improvement," when 90 percent of our students passed last year's state exams, and we know we are doing a real good job," Superintendent Ken Rich told The News.
Rich went over the accountability report with the Salem School Board during its Monday, Nov. 19 meeting.
Under the state's new system of classification, "Needs Improvement" is not considered a negative rating, two other classifications: "Needs Improvement Focus" or "Needs Improvement Priority" are where poorly achieving schools are found.
"When Arkansas received a waiver from meeting requirements of No Child Left Behind, the state objected to the "Needs Improvement" classification because of its negative connotations, but the federal government refused to change it," Rich said.
Under No Child Left Behind, a federal program passed in 2001, school systems were rated together, in a competition to improve. Schools have been under pressure to meet a lofty goal -- to improve skills so that all American students
are at grade level in literacy and math by 2014.
Salem Schools have achieved their Annual Yearly Progress goals every year that No Child Left Behind has been in place, while underachieving schools have had to implement improvement plans, and faced sanctions ranging from special monitoring to staff changes to closing if progress was not made.
As Congress and the President work to change No Child Left Behind to make its goals more realistic, Arkansas is among states who sought and were granted waivers from the federal requirements, allowing them to try some new approaches to improving student skills and test scores.
Instead of the No Child Left Behind Goal of 100 percent proficiency, Arkansas' new goal is to reduce proficiency gaps by half by 2017.
Under the new state system, schools no longer compete against each other. Instead, they are given goals, called Annual Measurable Objectives, to meet each year, to show continual improvement.
The goals include improving test scores to meet targets assigned by the state, to show continued growth and to improve high school graduation rates.
The problem Salem Schools face is, their students are high achievers, but they must continue the upward climb to hit 100 percent proficiency.
According to Rich, about 60 percent of U.S. students are listed as "achieving," while 85 to 90 percent of Salem students are "achieving."
"We don't have as far to go as many schools to hit 100 percent achieving, but it is harder and harder to improve each year to get from 90 to 100 percent," Rich said. "I told our teachers many schools (with much lower test scores) would love to be in our shoes."
Under the new accountability system, Salem is expected to improve its test scores by two percent a year for the next six years. Students have been divided into two groups: "regular" students and a "TAG" group. Tag stands for Targeted Achievement Group, students who have shown problems with academic achievement because they have mental disabilities, are immigrants for which English is a second language or live in poverty.
Even Salem's TAG group performs surprisingly high.
"Students with disabilities have a more difficult time learning at the same pace, but are held at the same standard as other students," Rich said. "I am very proud of our TAG group because (the majority) are within three or four percentage points of our other students.
Part of the frustration of receiving a "Needs Improvement" rating is the fact that just one or two students with higher test scores would have allowed the elementary school to reach its goals. In math, for example, the state set a goal that 95.20 percent of students would pass. The school's actual pass rate was 94.58 percent, so it fell short by less than one percentage point.
"We are so close to meeting our goals, I don't expect big changes in what we do," Rich said. "We'll probably change our focus a bit and move some resources around."
The Department of Education stopped sending its Accountability Reports to every student home last year, deciding to put them online instead, to save money.
However, Salem schools are going to send a letter and accountability information home, to inform parents how the process has changed and why Salem Elementary received its classification.
Anyone with questions are invited to contact the superintendent or principals.
In other recent school board business, the board had its yearly reorganization in October. Barry Abner was chosen as Board President, Karen Coffman as Treasurer and Guy Smith as Secretary.
Because of the resignations of Anna Southerland and Marsha Pillers, Erin Lemon has been hired as a Special Education Aid and Cynthia Stillwell has been hired as a Special Needs Aid for Special Education.