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Bernie Sanders talks education

Ohanian Comment: This is a true horror story. . . coming to a school near you soon. A Burlington school principal is doing meritorious work; Obama/Duncan insist she must leave the school.

I was at the meeting where parents stood up in praise of this principal who is transforming a high-poverty, English-as-a-second-language school. Their public testimony was very moving.

Instead of fighting this outrage of the Feds, Vermont educrats move the principal to another job. So school critics can carp that a principal who was removed from a school that failed to improve enough is now in charge of school improvement in the city.

What educats should do instead of playing musical chairs is to shout, "Hell, no!"

This is not an education plan: This is a corporate takeover of public schools. Media headlines in the last few days have centered on the increasing number of Vermont schools not meeting "adequate progress" goals, creating the impression that Vermont schools and the students in them are doing worse than in the past. No one points out that these goals are pushing toward the impossibility of 100% proficiency in 2014.

This news item is typical:

More Vermont schools failed to meet state standards for student achievement this year than last, mostly with students on free and reduced lunch continuing to miss the mark.

According to 2010 Adequate Yearly Progress determinations released Tuesday by the state Department of Education, 94 of the state's 306 schools, or 31 percent, did not reach the progress benchmark required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That's six more schools than last year. --Rutland Herald, May 12, 2010
Bernie Sanders sits on the Education Committee. He voted against NCLB. We'll have to wait and see what he does now. Both his chief of staff and his education aide were in town for this public meeting. They got an earful--before, during, and after the meeting.

By Molly Walsh

Count U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders among the critics of a federal education reform measure being touted by President's Obama education secretary, Arne Duncan.

The Vermont senator is going to bat for a Burlington principal, Joyce Irvine, who was pushed out of her job this month by a Duncan-inspired provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires states to identify their ten lowest performing schools. The ten Vermont schools are in line to apply for $8.5 million in federal grant money, but only if they make changes including removing any principal on the job for more than two years.

Initially it looked like Irvine would keep her position at the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler, since the school in Burlington's Old North End was reborn this year as a magnet school. She was told last week that the feds would not go for that, and she would have to vacate the position.

Granted, Irvine is not out of work. She's been offered a new, grant-funded position in the school district that focuses on school improvement.

Critics are flummoxed by this --since low test scores are what put Wheeler on the List of Ten. And indeed, the scores are low at Wheeler. But many who know Irvine and know the challenges at Wheeler, including high poverty and a large number of refugee children, give her high praise.

Parents, teachers and administrators have come to Irvine's defense in the last week at a school board meeting, a PTO Meeting and at a Town Meeting on No Child Left Behind that Sanders hosted Monday night.

Fans are praising her energy, optimism and skill in helping to launch the transformation of a high-poverty neighborhood school to a magnet full of art, music and other creative endeavors. Just a few years ago the student population at Wheeler was 97 percent low income; next year that number is expected to drop to 50 percent in kindergarten, first and second grade.

If those projections pan out Irvine deserves credit for increasing public confidence in the school and helping it climb out of concentrated poverty. Burlington residents fought mandatory redistricting that would have required more middle income kids to attend to Wheeler so if Irvine has managed socio-economic integration with the carrot rather than the stick she's got some real savvy.

Sanders, in an interview with me, said seeing Irvine's current situation is "almost a poster child for some of the absurdities of No Child Left Behind and I want to see that addressed." The law sends a "terrible message" to people who take on some of the toughest jobs in education and work with some of the neediest students, Sanders suggested. It tells them "you're going to be humiliated, you're going to be fired" no matter what you do, he opined.

Sanders, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, will be involved in the makeover of No Child Left Behind. He plans to make his feelings about the List of Ten regulation known. "It's my intention to talk to Arne Duncan and say, heh, if this is the way you think you are going to improve low income schools, you are very mistaken."

Irvine meanwhile, is moving forward, she told me in an interview Thursday. "You know what, we're doing a darn good job at the Integrated Arts Academy. I'm sad to leave but on the other hand I'm feeling really good about the work we do. I'm not taking things personally."

She'll finish out the year at the Academy and start her new position July 1.

Molly Walsh is a reporter for the Burlington Free Press.

— Molly Walsh
VT Buzz: A Political Blog





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