A three-year state effort to turn around two struggling rural schools in Nebraska has succeeded at one but stalled at the other, state officials said.

Loup County Elementary School in Taylor has made sufficient progress to remove it from priority status, according to Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.

But he said lack of progress at Santee Middle School in Niobrara requires the state to ratchet up its intervention effort at the reservation school, where about nine in 10 students are Native American.

“We’ve seen progress in certain things,” Blomstedt said. “We haven’t seen it in the academic side.”

The commissioner is recommending that Santee Middle School remain listed for another year and that Santee elementary and high school be added as priority schools.

State board members will consider adopting the recommendations in June.

Loup County Elementary, designated a “needs improvement” school in 2015, has moved up to “great” in the latest state rankings. The district also has that ranking.

Rusty Ruppert, the superintendent of the Loup County Public Schools, said the school’s 80% proficiency on state English language arts assessments ranked No. 1 among schools of similar size, poverty and demographics statewide. In math, he said, the school’s 70% proficiency ranked No. 2 among similar schools.

“The best part was seeing the community, the school board and the staff get behind something that when it was first announced didn’t come across as very positive,” he said.

In 2015, the department designated Loup County Elementary, Santee Middle and Druid Hill Elementary in Omaha as its first priority schools under a 2014 law.

State officials selected Santee in hopes that a successful turnaround there could serve as a model for improving other historically struggling Native American schools. They hoped to apply the lessons from Loup County to other small rural schools.

Based on test scores and other measures, the Nebraska Department of Education classifies public schools as excellent, great, good or needing improvement. Priority schools are selected from among the lowest-performing “needs improvement” schools.

The state imposed progress plans on those schools in 2016. Druid Hill, already receiving special assistance at the time from OPS, was delisted in 2017. Schuyler Central High School was designated last year and is completing its first year of intervention.

The state sends an intervention team into priority schools to diagnose what’s impeding achievement and write an improvement plan.

Santee Middle School remains a “needs improvement” school under the state’s classification system.

Community poverty and leadership challenges have hindered Santee’s progress, Blomstedt said.

Designating all three Santee schools will allow the state to impact all grades, from pre-kindergarten through high school, he said.

“We want a really consistent plan all the way through their schools,” Blomstedt said. “We don’t want to just have a hit-and-miss thing.”

Under state law, the state is required after three years to reevaluate a school’s plan and either revise the plan, write a new plan or consider an alternative administrative structure.

The Santee district has low achievement at all three schools, a 35% high school graduation rate and a 50% rate of chronic absenteeism, officials said.

The district is on the Santee Sioux Nation Reservation in Knox County.

Santee officials said their community is unique culturally and isolated geographically, which presents challenges such as attracting and keeping teachers.

The school board president, Steve Moose, said he thinks that if the elementary school can be improved it will lead to improvement in the upper grades.

Kari Daniels, the Santee superintendent the past two years, told board members to consider the district’s poverty.

That contributes to absenteeism and to the lack of stable residency for families, she said.

“Oftentimes education may not be their top priority — it may be housing, it may be some of those basic needs,” she said.

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joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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