Priority Schools

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The priority schools initiative aims to improve the academic performance, school culture, parental involvement, and community support for the most struggling schools. Schools and demographics which consistently suffer low academic performance often share many elements in common, and when organizing to promote equality for one of these schools all have the potential for benefit. In order to accomplish this multi-level organizing is required, in which the NEA is especially gifted. This program has already shown fruit, enabling students and districts to turn their culture around. 

Priority Schools Initiative

Every student deserves the best chance at a fulfilling education. That is why the National Education Association is engaged in strategic partnerships which entails:

Our commitment includes a vow to work side-by-side with communities and with policymakers in state capitals, in Congress and the Obama administration; to partner in pursuit of innovative programs to measure student success and teacher quality; and to fight to attract and keep the best educators and necessary resources for the schools of greatest need. (NEA)

In order to accomplish this the NEA has created 16 programs which each fit into three main categories:

1. Community and family-community programs: These are efforts to engage the community (including families, local residents, and community organizations) in advancing student learning.

2. Programs to engage parents and other family members: These are programs/efforts to engage families in children’s learning and development.

3. Wraparound social and community services programs: These are programs that provide social and health services to strengthen and support children and families. (NEA)

The effective approach of the NEA is accomplished through knowing who and how to collaborate in order for the most to be accomplished in the least amount of time. The NEA has outlined 10 Key Strategies for effective partnerships to adjudicate the priority schools initiative, but they are so effective they could be applied to any collaboration with a high likelihood of success. These ten strategies are:

1. Agreeing on core values

2. Listening to the community

3. Using data to set priorities and focus strategies

4. Providing relevant, on-site professional development

5. Building collaborations with community partners

6. Using targeted outreach to focus on high needs communities, schools, and students

7. Building one-to-one relationships between families and educators that are linked to learning

8. Setting, communicating, and supporting high and rigorous expectations

9. Addressing cultural differences

10. Connecting students to the community (NEA)

(Figure 1 omitted for preview. Available via download).

There is a tier system of growth inherent in the priority schools initiative which seeks to focus priorities and resources where they are most needed. If and when the plan is successful schools will transition out of the program:

Priority Schools:

A Priority School is a school that has been identified as among the lowest-performing five percent of Title I schools in the state over the past three years, or any non-Title I school that would otherwise have met the same criteria.

Focus Schools:

Focus Schools comprise about 10% of schools with the overall lowest subgroup performance, a graduation rate below 75% and the widest gaps in achievement between different subgroups of students.  Focus Schools receive targeted and tailored solutions to meet the school's unique needs.

Reward Schools:

A Reward School is a school that has achieved high proficiency levels or high levels of growth, including progress toward closing the achievement gap.  This allows for a range of schools from across the state to attain Reward status, regardless of their absolute starting point. (State of New Jersey Department of Education)

Understanding the nature of a priority school is key for knowing how to address the needs therein. A few facts about the general nature of the priority schools puts the need for this program into perspective:

In Priority Schools, only 3 out of 10 students are proficient:

o 2011 Average English Language Arts proficiency: 29%

o 2011 Average Math proficiency: 29%

In Focus Schools, we find better overall performance but troubling achievement gaps, with one of the following: Within-school gaps between high performing students and struggling students of roughly 43 percentage points or higher

o Struggling student populations with an overall proficiency rate of roughly 29% or lower

o High schools with an overall graduation rate lower than 75% (State of New Jersey Department of Education)

A large part of consistent low performance in schools is the dynamic of school culture, and the NEA makes this a focus when working with priority schools. One Baltimore guidance counselor commented on their struggling school environment;

It was obvious the atmosphere was just a zoo. Kids all over the halls, getting high in the stairwells, drug deals going on left and right. It was just a circus. Attendance was atrocious, dropout rate was high, test scores low. Everything was negative. So just one step in the building and you knew that something was wrong. (

Sometimes this means instilling a new sense of discipline through wearing uniforms, and others it means cultivating respect through students participating in custodial duty of the grounds (NEA). This was the case in California when in 1994 all Long Beach schools’ “adopted a school uniform requirement. Since then, school crime has dropped by 76 percent. Proponents say that school uniforms decrease fighting over clothes, are convenient for parents, and give students a sense of common identity” ( However, priority schools always need more parental involvement, and this must be approached creatively based on the needs of the school:

Sometimes, what parents need most is a helping hand. Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School serve many single-parent families where mothers or fathers work several jobs to make ends meet. Staff will often hand out toiletries to students or refer parents to assistance groups that will help them get their power turned back on or stock their pantries with healthy food. At Grant Elementary and Eanes Middle School, nearly all students receive free or reduced-price lunch. (NEA)

Reason for Priority School Identification Exit Criteria

Criterion A. Schools receiving School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds under Section 1003(g) of ESEA in Federal Fiscal Year 2009 (Cohort I) or 2010 (Cohort II) and identified and served as a Tier I or Tier II school will exit priority status at the conclusion of implementation of the chosen three-year intervention model

Criterion B. Title I high schools with a federal graduation indicator* of 60 percent or less for two or more of the most recent consecutive years. Will exit priority status after full implementation of a three year intervention model and sustaining a 10 percent reduction in the percentage of students not earning a standard or advanced diploma within a four year period for two consecutive years

Criterion C. Title I schools based on the “all students” performance in reading and/or mathematics performance on federal AMOs. Will exit priority status after full implementation of a three year intervention model and meeting federal AMOs for the “all students” for two consecutive years

Criterion D. Title I schools failing to meet the 95% participation rate in reading and/or mathematics for three consecutive years. Will exit priority status after full implementation of a three year intervention model and meeting the participation rate for the “all students” for two consecutive years.

(Figure 2 omitted for preview. Available via download).

School culture, funding support, and the various methods of improving academic performance all reflect the need and desire for all students to have the best chance of success. Parental involvement has the potential of improving relationships across the and may go a long way towards nurturing the communities in which the programs are in place. Only time and continued investment will tell.


The Priority Schools initiative is one of the many successful approaches to addressing consistently low performing schools. This program funds those schools most struggling in the hopes of enabling greater administrative and educator support. Many creative, on site solutions are instigated to support a proactive school culture, and strategic partnerships are made which strengthens the community overall. Students who struggle the most may have a greater propensity to violence, crime, and social dysfunction which could damage the structure of culture. Investing in these at risk demographics while they are young will pay off in the long run considerably.


1. Retrieved from:

2. Retrieved from: the Virginia Department of Education: “Office of School Improvement Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Priority Schools.”

Works Cited “Demonstrating that an SEA’s list of reward, priority, and focus schools meet ESEA flexibility definitions.”, 2016. Retrieved from: “Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

NEA. “NEA Priority Schools Campaign.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

NEA. “Alabama Schools Turn Tide Through Focus on Collaboration, Outreach.”,  2016. Retrieved from:

State of New Jersey Department of Education. “Priority and Focus Schools.”, 2016. Retrieved from: