Butterfield, Minn. — The 34 schools deemed Minnesota's persistently lowest performing are working with state officials on plans to turn them around.
Each school stands to gain a lot of money for that effort. But the leaders of some of those schools say they don't want to be on the list, no matter how much money they stand to receive.
A prime example is tranquil Butterfield School, which stands across the street from a poultry processing plant. Every now and then, a chicken escapes from the plant, and crosses the road to wander through the school hallways.
That's about as exciting as it gets some days in this quiet farm community in southern Minnesota's Watonwan County, where 240 students, from kindergarten through grade 12, attend the only school in town.
So imagine the jolt residents of the town felt when Butterfield High School showed up on the list of Minnesota's 34 persistently lowest-performing schools.
"The tears rolled down my face because I was in utter shock," said Lisa Shellum, the school's superintendent and principal.
Shellum said Butterfield doesn't belong on the list -- even though it could mean as much $1 million for a school district with an entire annual budget of $2.7 million. The school's initial reaction was to fight it.
"My board said our reputation is worth more than a million dollars," Shellum said. [We were] willing to forego it to say, 'Hey, we are not a persistently low performing school.'"
Shellum is happy to present data that she says show how well her students perform. She said the test scores the state used to put her school on the list were skewed by extraordinary circumstances. She notes that the school's only high school math teacher was deployed to Iraq for two years and she couldn't find a licensed replacement.
The only sign of trouble came last year, when the high school missed the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark of the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the first time.
State education officials stand by their work.
"Minnesota will not remove schools from the list," said Pat King, an official with the Department of Education.
King, director of the department's School Improvement Division, said federal rules for creating the list required her to calculate data in ways the state never had before. That led to some surprises on the list, like Butterfield.
Additional analysis shows that Butterfield was, in fact, at the start of what could be a long, steady decline, King said.
King has this message for Butterfield, and other communities with schools on the list.
"We really would encourage you to have an open mind, and really think about this as an opportunity to possibly be a lighthouse school or a turnaround school in the state of Minnesota -- especially in southern Minnesota -- that other schools can look at and learn from," King said.
The state's list is part of the Obama administration's effort to fix the nation's lowest-achieving schools by dedicating unprecedented amounts of money to them. The administration plans to spend $3.5 billion this year. Minnesota will receive $34 million for just 34 schools.
In return for the money, schools must follow one of four turnaround models. One model is to close, another is to close and re-open as a charter school. The final two options include firing the principal and some teachers while implementing several other measures.
The timeline is tight as the state wants the models in place this summer.
Critics say the effort's flaw is that it tries to fit all of the nation's struggling schools into four categories without fully considering each situation.
In a hearing last week, leaders from at least seven of the 34 schools told state lawmakers that they can live with most of the turnaround measures. But the school officials said they're wary of firing a principal who is either new to the job or showing genuine promise.
In an interview, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he has no desire to throw more money at the worst-performing schools, unless they make significant changes.
"Money's never the solution, but it can help," Duncan said. "We want to put our money where our mouth is, put resources on the table and say, 'If you're willing to challenge the status quo, if you're willing to get dramatically better, we want to help you get there and help fund that new vision."
The leaders of the schools selected for a turnaround say they feel backed into a corner. Under the rules, if they don't take the federal money, they will still have to come up with a plan of action and execute it with money from their budgets. So why not just take the money?
State officials admit that the rules pressure schools to make changes. But they also say that with so much money and such an extensive set of requirements, they can't help but believe all these schools will perform better in three years.
In Butterfield, Shellum will likely lose her job as high school principal but she'll still be superintendent. She's trying to convince state officials to remove her school from the list. At the same time, she's preparing to implement the very turnaround that's caused her so much angst.