STEPHENSON - Administrators, teachers, parents and students all have reasons to celebrate the start of the new school year at Stephenson Area Public Schools. Reports released by the Michigan Department of Education a few weeks ago have placed the district in the top ranking for academic achievement in the state.

Stephenson was the only school district in Menominee County and the Upper Peninsula to have a state ranking in student achievement testing of more than 80 percent at all three levels: elementary (82 percent), middle school (85 percent) and high school (81 percent).

As a result, the state has recognized both the middle and high schools as top-rated Reward Schools. It is the second time the middle school achieved the award, and the first for the high school.

But what makes this achievement truly remarkable is that just three years ago (in 2010), when the state released its "Top to Bottom" rankings for 2009/2010, Stephenson High School was rated at the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Jerry Sardina, junior and senior high school principal, said that the school was considered to be Persistently Low Achieving (PLA), classifying it as a "priority" school.

While the high school was classified as a PLA, the middle school was declared as "Beating the odds," meaning student achievement there was beating the demographic and socioeconomic factors in turning in good standardized test scores.

The school district was put on report, he said, with the state requiring a plan of action in the next year to raise student test scores within four years.

"In the fall of 2009, there were millions of dollars in grants available to help school districts," Sardina said. "By 2010, there was nothing left."

So, the district had to go it alone, formulating a plan without adding any money to the pot.

They have met their goals and exceeded them, Sardina said recently, within two years of implementation.

"This was just for the high school," he said of the state mandate. "But we recognized kids don't wake up and (have problems). The elementary and middle school (teachers and students) didn't have to be in the plan, but everyone supported the high school."

Districtwide, the administration and school board worked with the teachers to come up with a plan that started with a longer school day, and a longer school year.

That started immediately. Students used to start classes at 8:15 a.m., now they start at 7:50. Classes were originally dismissed at 3:20 p.m., now school ends at 3:30. The school year started Aug. 26 and ends June 6, 2014.

Sardina explained how extra time translated into more learning.

"We have added a class in the middle of the day, from 11:12 to 11:45 a.m., and every kid has extended learning," he said.

Students are given more instruction on English, science, math and social studies, he said, with a different subject tackled each quarter.

"With a longer day - 30 minutes - we've extended the learning time for core classes and given teachers and students more time to do test prep," he said.

The extended time slows down the day for teachers and students and allows them to complete curricula that often was shortened, Sardina said. While there is more time to spend with students who may need extra help, the higher-achieving students are also challenged more, he said.

"Teachers are able to get into the deeper (schooling)," Sardina said. "One-hundred-seventy days come so quick, you don't get to cover everything. Now, they have 184 days to dig deeper."

Sardina said that everyone had to buy into the plan - teachers, the school board, administration - and the parents and students.

They did.

"People were mostly concerned about the busing (and what time students would be traveling), but the changes didn't effect breakfast (and them getting to school on time)," he said.

Parents also worried about the longer school day and the longer school year, but they supported the message given to them that both were "what is best for your child's education," Sardina said.

Changing the hours and school year were put in place in the 2010-11 school year, when work also began to form teacher leadership teams, data review teams and intervention classes.

Intervention classes help struggling students in a variety of ways, he said, and provide students with "a positive, safe, happy environment." Sardina said bringing the academic achievement up was more than raising test scores for the students and the teachers.

"The kids didn't want to talk about test scores, but about attitudes (of teachers) in the classrooms," he said. The result, "We wanted to know - do the kids like being here?"

Sardina said that the school takes on the face of the community, and that intervention classes address the needs of the individual students and what they need personally. They restructured curriculum, teachers and labs where needed.

"A year later, we were not in the bottom 5 percent," Sardina said of the 2011-12 school year. "And this year (2012-13), we were a Rewards School."

He said the state monitor assigned to Stephenson said it was "unbelievable to do it in two years or less, with no money and without adding teachers."

The school still has to follow the plan this school year and next, but participants will continue the discussion to keep things moving forward. While funding cuts continue to hurt education, Sardina said the district will keep looking for ways to offer programs needed by students for their futures, whether they plan to continue in an academic or vocational direction.

Superintendent Steve Paliewicz and the board of education made this statement:

"Please take the time to congratulate teachers, administration, parents and the students of SAPS on a job well done. The improvement in the ranking were the result of a very intensive, well-thought out plan to increase our scores and student achievement. This plan took a tremendous amount of time and effort to implement and execute.

"This plan challenged the district to utilize new ways to educate and reach all students in the district. These changes will not only help the school's ranking in the state, but prepare our students to score well on college entrances exams and prepare them for post-secondary education."