Bennett invited administrators from several schools that had seen dramatic progress on their test scores to the press conference. Among them was Thomas Sims, the first-year principal of the Dickinson Fine Arts Academy in South Bend. Sims came to a school that had seen years of dismal ISTEP+ scores and was on the verge of being taken over by the state if its poor performance continued.
Under Sims, the school achieved greater gains than any other middle school in the state; 26 percent more of its students passed both the math and English/language arts portions of the test this past spring than the year before. “We decided we weren't going to be the underdog anymore,” Sims said.
Bennett noted that 77 percent of Dickinson's students were on the free or reduced lunch program, an indicator of poverty. Historically, students who come from low-income families have lower scores on standardized tests. Sims said the school overcame that obstacle by setting high standards for its students, closely monitoring their progress, and intervening with students who needed help to catch up.
Also at the event was Lee Begle, principal of Ferdinand Elementary School in Dubois County, which had the highest ISTEP+ pass rate for the second year in a row. Ninety-nine percent of its students passed the math and English/language arts sections of the test.
Begle praised his school's teachers and students for their hard work, but said his school didn't face the same obstacles that many of the lowest-scoring schools do. Ferdinand Elementary has a low percent of students on the free and reduced lunch program, strong community support, and a high rate of parent participation.
“It's a piece of cake when you've got that kind of support,” Begle said. He also took the opportunity to verbally nudge a couple of legislators who attended the press conference, by urging them to continue to support state funding for full-day kindergarten – added just this year – and to consider putting state dollars into pre-K education.