Under a new five-tier rating system unveiled by the Oregon Department of Education Thursday, six out of 59 Jackson County schools earned the highest grade — Level 5 — and four received the lowest.

Under a new five-tier rating system unveiled by the Oregon Department of Education Thursday, six out of 59 Jackson County schools earned the highest grade — Level 5 — and four received the lowest.

Top-level schools included Ashland High, John Muir Elementary in Ashland, Sams Valley Elementary in the Central Point district, Madrone Trail Public Charter in the Medford district, Talent Elementary in the Phoenix-Talent district and Pinehurst Elementary east of Ashland. All performed in the top 10 percent of schools statewide, according to the state report cards.

Those schools receiving a Level 1 failing grade, ranked in the worst 5 percent in the state, are considered to be in dire need of improvement. Locally those are Prospect Charter, Armadillo Technical Institute in Phoenix, Central Medford High and the Upper Rogue center, Eagle Point's former alternative education school.

All landed on the list for having low test scores, low student growth, poor achievement by low-income students and, in the case of high schools, exceedingly poor graduation rates.

John Muir, Sams Valley and Talent Elementary received "model" school status for their success in turning their challenges around, according to the ODE. Model schools are expected to share their strategies for success with lower-performing schools.

All schools' performance and growth are measured under the new system, but only Title 1 schools, which have a high percentage of low-income students and accept additional federal funding, are labeled as "model," "focus" and "priority." The designations are part of Oregon's waiver under the No Child Left Behind act.

Central Point Schools Superintendent Samantha Steele was pleased that Sams Valley, a small school that languished in enrollment and was threatened with closure just a few years ago, has come roaring back because of a successful collaboration between a strong staff and a supportive community, she said.

While 70 percent of her district's schools were ranked above average when compared to similar schools statewide, Jewett Elementary received a "below average" because special education and English-learning classes didn't progress enough, she said.

"We want to unfold the full potential of every child," Steele said. (Correction: This story has been updated to explain Jewett's ranking.)

ODE's rating system is designed to give slightly more than half of schools one of the top two ratings. In Jackson County, 36 of the 59 schools received Level 4 or 5.

The rankings take into account teacher training, attendance, student test scores, student poverty levels and graduation rates, among other criteria.

The new system replaced previous ratings of "outstanding," "satisfactory" and "in need of improvement" on state report cards.

Schools in need of state help are listed as a "focus" or "priority" school. In Jackson County, the only focus school is Hillside Elementary in Eagle Point, formerly called Little Butte School.

Districts with focus schools may be asked to set aside as much as 20 percent of their Title 1 funds to support and provide intervention for those schools.

Hillside Elementary last year scored in the lowest 15 percent of Title 1 schools. The school had been labeled "satisfactory" for nine years before it failed to meet annual progress benchmarks in reading and math for two years.

Focus schools receive state intervention and support to increase student success for four years. New focus schools will be identified in 2015, according to the ODE.

Eagle Point Superintendent Cynda Rickert said Hillside has made great strides in the past year, rising to a Level 3 with about average performance.

"And we're going to continue to improve," Rickert said.

The district took a team of employees from Hillside and Shady Cove School, which was listed as a "model" school last year, to Eugene to receive training on the roles and responsibilities of the schools.

Rickert credited Hillside's progress to the additional state money and to new systems, strategies and staffing that have been put in place in the past year.

"I'm a big believer in making sure the right leaders are in place," she said, adding Hillside has a new principal.

"Jenn Whitehead has a history of turning around elementary schools," Rickert said.

Shady Cove School Principal Tiffanie Lambert, who has a background in special education, provided mentoring to Hillside, which has many special education students.

"Model" school designation changes annually, according to the state report from Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton.

Rickert praised the new state assessment system because it has moved past "pass/fail" benchmarks and actually tracks student growth.

"They're looking at every kid and seeing where they started and where they've ended," Rickert said.

Eagle Rock Elementary, White City Elementary and Shade Cove School each scored in the top 10 percentile for the state in growth, she said.

"We're very proud of all of our schools. That is a huge improvement over the state average," Rickert said.

Upper Rogue Center for Educational Opportunities, Eagle Point's former alternative educational program that scored a 1 this year, has been scuttled for a new online program.

"(URCEO) had been more of a place to catch kids who were not successful in other school settings," Rickert said. "The new online program D9Online has the goal of offering more ways for all students to get their education.

"One population we've really been wanting to work with is our homeschool families," Rickert said. "They get so much more support with the new system. Our hope is that we'll be raising that score and getting more done with our kids."

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long said 11 of the district's 21 schools received a Level 4 under the new system. Its lone Level 1 score came from Central Medford High School, which faces rapidly changing demographics and other challenges, Long said.

"We have had a rapid increase in the Latino population," Long said, adding the state's goal of balancing the ethnicity ratios of teachers and students will take time to achieve.

"It will take time to match the teaching staff to reflect the new demographics," he said.

The high school also has a larger percentage of students who require special interventions and additional support in order to make it to graduation. Students experiencing significant stress and disruptions in their lives often take five years or more to graduate, he said.

"You make that investment and it bears fruit as the kids get back on track," Long said.

Level 2 schools are considered to be in serious need of improvement. Four schools in the county fell into this allotment: Butte Falls Charter, Logos Public Charter, Rivers Edge Academy Charter and Rogue River Elementary.

Logos' students who have been homeschooled may not have received the same type or level of education that aligns well with state standards, Long said. The results are that many scored below average in the state assessments. But Logos testing has shown growth in student performance over the last three years, he said.

"It's improving. They need to keep improving," Long said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.