Principals cite community support, talented teachers and faculty as keys
Gibraltar High School ranked 23 out of 514 Wisconsin high schools in a 2023 U.S. News and World Report list, but all Door County schools also ranked high among the upper third of the public schools in the state.
In fact, neighboring districts to the south ranked high on the top half of the list that put Sturgeon Bay at No. 67, Sevastopol 84, Southern Door 153, Algoma 134 and Luxemburg-Casco 196 in the state.
Washington Island, with its small population, did not receive a ranking, but school staff and supporters can realistically boast about highly individualized teaching for one reason – the island district has the lowest teacher-to-student ratio in the region, at 6-to-1.
Gibraltar High School Principal James DeBroux cited two key factors for Gibraltar’s successes: a “talented, experienced and engaged faculty and a remarkably supportive group of families and broader community.” He said the community participation at events and activities testifies to the high level of community support they receive
“Our community has high expectations of us and our faculty, and staff [members] believe that our students should always aim high and can achieve their goals.”
The Advanced-Placement Edge
The recent ranking list appeared to give points for the number of students each taking Advanced Placement (AP), college-level courses. The list showed half of Gibraltar students trying at least one AP course – versus 30% at Sevastopol, 28% at Sturgeon Bay and 27% at Southern Door. In addition to those courses, each of the schools offer several courses and programs designed for workplace readiness and business careers.
This summer, seven Gibraltar teachers attended training programming for AP course teaching and strategies. None attended that summer training the previous year, DeBroux said at a board meeting this summer.
“The benchmark DPI uses to recognize the elite schools in Wisconsin as Level 1 Advanced Placement Pacesetters is set at 30%,” DeBroux said. “This speaks again to a veteran staff that is willing to put in the extra work to support AP and other collegiate level classes that we offer, including our in-house dual credit partnerships with UWGB and NWTC. Our students have numerous overlapping opportunities to save money by earning college credit while at Gibraltar.”
Sturgeon Bay High School Principal Keith Nerby said not all school administrators and principals emphasize AP coursework, but he strongly supports making those courses available.
“I’m a big fan of Advanced Placement classes,” he said. “Not that it’s right for every student, but I think it’s a great opportunity for students to try a class at the college level. What we know statistically is students who take an AP class in high school are more likely to be successful in college,” Nerby said. “Some of the studies out there show, even a student who gets a C in an AP class typically performs better at college than a student who didn’t take an AP class, because they’re experiencing that rigor, that experience of a college class in high school.”
He said some school districts have different philosophical ideas than him and operate with the belief that AP classes “should be harder to get into.”
“I think it’s great for students to challenge themselves and try those courses. For our size, we have a lot of opportunities, too,” Nerby said.
Cooperation Versus Competition
Kyle Luedtke, Sevastopol schools superintendent, took a glance at the U.S. News list and noted that Sevastopol ranked 3,087 in the nation, which put it around the top 17% of schools in the nation. Sevastopol has ranked higher on the list in previous years, but he said he puts much more weight in the Department of Public Instruction state report cards that come out each fall.
“I think all the schools in the county do a pretty good job of educating our kids,” he said.
The county’s geography as a peninsula creates a different dynamic among local school districts, Luedtke said, one that stresses cooperation rather than competition. He also said different ranking systems use different data, or even factors beyond a school’s control, such as crime in a neighborhood.
He said ranking lists can be good for public perception, however.
“Much more, I want to make sure our students are successful and growing from year-to-year, and if that is happening, that means the world to me,” Nerby said.
Community Support and Teachers Make the Difference
Area administrators repeatedly cited community support as a key strength of Door County districts.
“We have a phenomenally supportive community – a great community to raise a family or to have kids in the system,” said Nerby, who chose to move from the larger Sun Prairie district to Sturgeon Bay in part because of the community and to enroll his three children in the schools here.
Data used by U.S. News showed better-than state-average student-to-teacher ratios at the Door County districts, with Gibraltar, Sevastopol and Southern Door all at 10-to-1 and Sturgeon Bay at 14-to-1. Luedtke said that figure often means full-time-equivalent instructors per student. Often that ratio tightens when more special needs students require more instructors, individualized education plans and one-on-one instruction. Nerby said some classes at Sturgeon Bay might have 28 students and one teacher, and in AP courses, such as advanced English Literature, a teacher might have just six students.
Nerby said all schools today are competing for the best teaching staff possible.
“We have excellent quality teachers, and we know the biggest difference between students being successful in class and not is, honestly, the person who’s in front of them. That’s one of the biggest things: how do we keep and retain really good teachers, and how do we attract really good teachers?” Nerby said. “There’s a teacher shortage obviously throughout the country, and it’s hard because there aren’t as many people going into the teaching profession as there were years ago. So, we’re fighting over a smaller pool of really, really great candidates.”
Nerby said Door County and Sturgeon Bay have inherent qualities that sell themselves as great places to live and work and that’s reflected in the great number of teachers who grew up here and want to teach here. Many Sturgeon Bay and Door County teachers may have left the area early in their careers or for college, but now want to return to work in education in or near their hometown.
“People might leave for a little bit, but boy do they come back, because it’s just such a great place,” Nerby said.