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Miami-Dade school for sick kids may be closed over FCAT scores

Ohanian Comment: I know this dates me to say this, but this one is right out of Monty Python. It is so perverted it is hard to believe it's true.

And it is so typical: This educational center gives children hope. Federal rules take that hope away.

Now imagine what will happen with National Standards.

By Kathleen McGrory

The students at Merrick Educational Center have a lot to worry about: Cancer. Brain injuries. Psychological disorders.

They also have to worry about the FCAT.

After the school got multiple F's on the test, the state could step in and shut it down.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is challenging the F's, including one this past spring, saying Merrick should not receive a grade like other schools.

Like their peers across Florida, the students at Merrick -- a school for hospitalized and homebound kids -- must take the state tests in math, reading, writing and science. Their school also receives a letter grade based on student performance.

"What we're asking for is compassion and a degree of humanity," Carvalho said. "We want [the state] to recognize what these children are going through."

In Florida, hospitalized and homebound students who are not involved in a special-education program must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, with few exceptions. And their scores must be factored into their school's grade.

This year, the scores from 79 students were included in Merrick's school grade. Their diagnoses included systemic lupus, fibromyalgia, cerebral palsy and cancer, according to school district records.

Testing the students presented a host of challenges. Teachers brought the exams to homes and hospital rooms.

In some cases, the students were only capable of breaking the seal and answering the first few questions, said the school's principal, Deborah Wehking.

One teacher was asked to give the FCAT to a middle-school student who had been hospitalized for cancer.

The boy's parents asked the teacher to return the following week. On the day the teacher was supposed to return, the boy died.

"The whole process is demoralizing for the students, the parents and the teachers," Wehking said.

Equally as demoralizing: receiving a failing school grade.

The stakes are especially high this year. Because Merrick has received multiple F grades, it must make gains in student performance before the spring -- or the state could step in and close it down.

Wehking said her students and teachers shouldn't be under that kind of pressure.

Carvalho is asking that Merrick receive no grade at all.

"Every child has severe medical conditions," he wrote in a letter to the Florida Department of Education. "The labeling of this school as a failing school is a travesty to its teachers and students."

State Department of Education spokeswoman Kelsey Lehtomaa said the agency would review the request and "give it every consideration."

She declined to comment further.

Merrick serves about 400 students, most of whom are too ill to attend school. Some children who are severely disabled take classes at the Coral Gables campus, but are exempt from the state tests.

The hospitalized and homebound students range from pre-kindergartners to high-school seniors.

In order to participate in the program, children must miss at least three weeks of school due to an ``acute or catastrophic'' medical condition or a chronic illness.

The younger students receive visits from teachers twice each week. The older ones participate in classes taught via telephone.

"Our purpose is not to replace a traditional school, but to keep the children from falling too far behind," Wehking said.

Few school districts in the state centralize their services for hospitalized and homebound students in a single school.

Carvalho said the model works. But it also makes Merrick subject to state and federal accountability measures.

"We do so much good," Wehking said. "We give our children hope. Unfortunately, that doesn't fit into the traditional accountability mold."

— Kathleen McGrory
Miami Herald





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