FLORENCE — The Muscle Shoals and Florence school districts ranked eighth and 11th, respectively, in the latest Niche listing of best public school districts in the state.

The list considers the totality of each public K-12 system in the state, and assigns ranking based on U.S. Department of Education data including such factors as state test scores, parent/community and student surveys, college readiness, graduation rates, SAT/ACT scores, teacher quality, culture and diversity, health and safety, resources and facilities, clubs, activities, and sports offerings.

In last year's report, Muscle Shoals schools ranked seventh in the state and Florence ranked ninth.

This year, Muscle Shoals earned an overall grade of A+ while Florence got an A.

The only other districts in the top 30 out of the state's 136 public school districts included Lauderdale County at 28th with an overall grade of A-, and Russellville City Schools ranked 30th, also with an A-.

Sheffield City Schools were ranked 66th with an overall B.

Other area school systems were unranked, but Tuscumbia and Colbert County school districts each earned a B- while Franklin County was given a C+. 

Muscle Shoals officials say the Niche rankings is a good indicator of where the district stands in key categories, and points out areas that need improvement.

"We're certainly happy with the A+ rating because it's just a testament to what the teachers and administrators in this district are able to accomplish in terms of motivating our students to achieve at a high level," said Superintendent Brian Lindsey.

The lowest the school district scored in a category was in diversity, where it earned a B+.

"We look strongly at diversity in the district with student population, especially, but we can't dictate that area. We educate whoever comes in the door, but we're also very mindful and strategic with our hiring, keeping diversity in the forefront." 

The Florence district earned an A+ in diversity, a longstanding point of pride for the district, officials say.

The report also noted that Florence Schools ranked first in the state as the most diverse district.

"There's absolutely a place for everyone in Florence City Schools and that's by design, so high marks in that area didn't surprise me," said Florence Superintendent Jimmy Shaw. "We have great diversity in all areas, really — socioeconomically, in backgrounds and interests."

Muscle Shoals earned A's in the categories of academics, clubs and activities, college preparation and health/safety and an A+ for teachers.

Muscle Shoals teachers ranked sixth out of 136 for best teachers in the state, according to the report and seventh out of 136 for best places to teach.

"The two areas of impact for us is safety and overall instruction, and it's just a testament to what our teachers and administrators are doing in the district," Lindsey said.

Florence earned an A+ in the area of clubs and activities, and A's in academics, teachers and college preparation. Its only B was in the area of health/safety.

"We have tremendous safety measures in place with SRO's on every campus, camera security and certainly adequate personnel in and around our facilities," Shaw said, adding that a school safety expert even addressed teachers last week during the opening institute providing a half-day training session.

"We need to get the word out more about our safety measures because we've been exceptionally strategic with those efforts," Shaw said.

Both districts have a 16:1 student-teacher ratio, and Muscle Shoals has an average ACT score of 26 while Florence's average is 25.

With a student population of 2,883, Muscle Shoals has a 70 percent math and 57 percent reading proficiency level, while Florence with its 4,470 students has a 52 percent proficiency in reading and 53 percent in math.

Muscle Shoals has 31 percent free/reduced lunch status while Florence has 60 percent.

Florence spends $11,826 per student, according to the report, while Muscle Shoals spends $10,072.

Shaw said officials in his district use the Niche report as a "good guide to public thought and opinion."

"This report provides us with feedback on how we're doing, plain and simple," he said. "They collect a lot of information from surveys, as well as hard data from throughout the district, so it's good information to have."

Ranking first was Mountain Brook with Madison City Schools ranking second.


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