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Vermont Buzz: Principal Ousted

Ohanian Comment: I attended this town meeting on education called by Bernie Sanders. Audience sentiment was definitely with the principal of the Integrated Arts Academy, a school with high poverty and high immigrant students. Parents spoke passionately in support of the school. The state education department asked that the principal be allowed to stay, and Duncan said, "No."

I am ashamed that Vermont didn't say, "Hell no! These are our schools."

No Child Left Behind Testing Provision Forces Out Principal

by Bernie Sanders

Joyce Irvine planned to complete her teaching career leading the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington̢۪s Old North End. The school is on the verge of completing its first year as a magnet school for the arts. Her plans were derailed by a scoring system used to disperse $8.5 million in federal grants to Vermont schools.

What standardized test scores failed to account for, however, were the ways that Wheeler is special. It is one of the most diverse schools in Vermont with many students coming from families of poor refugees. Because Wheeler welcomed the refugee community, 30 languages are spoken within its halls by pupils from 20 different countries. Many students – 50 of whom have been in the U.S. for less than two years – speak little or no English.

Although the switch to a magnet school has drawn children from middle-class families, the student body had been predominantly low income. "One year ago, we were 97 percent high povertyâ€Â¦ Those are the kids that are the most at-risk," Irvine said. Now, she said, about half of the students in kindergarten through second grade are from middle-class families.

"It is absurd that schools are judged and teachers are fired without taking into account the level of poverty and students with a lack of fluency in English," Senator Bernie Sanders said. "There's no question that Wheeler's 100 kids newly arrived from foreign countries are going to score lower than schools in upper middle-class communities where everybody was born in America and speaks English."

None of that -- the refugee population and the poverty -- was factored into the formula used to divvy up the school improvement grants, secured through last year's $787 billion stimulus package. To get access to Vermont's share of the federal money, local school districts picked one of four options that had to be used to access the funds. All of Vermont's school districts selected the "transformation model."

The bottom line was that principals at up to 10 schools throughout Vermont could be ousted. Only principals who were in place for at least two years of testing data are affected, however. Irvine, Wheeler's principal for six years, is one the principals being forced out.

Throughout Vermont, three other school principals could be removed as a side effect of accepting the federal grant money, said Rae Ann Knopf, Vermont̢۪s deputy commissioner of education. Aside from Irvine at Wheeler, the principals at Winooski High School and the St. Johnsbury School also could be replaced, she said.

Irvine, 57, will be replaced as principal on July 1. She will begin a new position as the district's school improvement coordinator. She isn't looking to get her job back. However, she does hope lessons are learned from the way she was removed so the same thing won't happen to other principals.

She supports the grant program that is sending $3 billion of stimulus funds to help improve schools throughout the United States, but faults how the program is implemented. "The premise is wonderful," she said. "You want to turn around the lowest performing schools."

She wants to ensure that when No Child Left Behind is reconsidered by Congress that this type of testing-based template for decision making isn't the primary rationale for how decisions are made.

Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca emphasized the decision of whether to participate in the grant program were made at the local level.

Each state was responsible for choosing the method of determining the lowest performing schools. Vermont used the most recent scores used by No Child Left Behind Act. Using these scores was the "most feasible," Knopf said, adding that a new system couldn't be created to evaluate all of the state's schools.

The provision that pushed Irvine from her job is not a direct result of No Child Left Behind, but the grant program's use of No Child Left Behind's testing provisions raises concerns that standardized testing is playing too large a role in determining how education dollars are being dispersed. No Child Left Behind is slated to be reconsidered by Congress later this year.

"The concern is that this is the model," Irvine said.

Senator Bernie Sanders shares that view. No Child Left Behind needs more flexibility and a method to encourage educators to work in schools that have not tested well, he said.

Four Options

To obtain the School Improvement Grants, the U.S. Education Department allowed for four options. Aside from dismissing the principal, districts could close the school; replace the school with a charter school; or replace the principal and half of the teachers. The first two options are not viable in Vermont, in large part, because of the rural nature of the state. All of the affected districts in Vermont opted for replacing the principal.

Irvine isn't opposed to the testing that was used to determine the lowest performing schools, but says standardized tests must be complemented by other means to evaluate what students have learned. Irvine says she sees tremendous student growth when students are given the opportunity to "express themselves creatively."

In addition to removing the principal, the "transformation model" called for by the grant also mandates comprehensive instructional reforms and increased learning time. Irvine says when Wheeler was converted to a magnet school last year much of that work was already done. "We literally flipped this school right over," she said.

Like each of the 10 schools identified in Vermont, The Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler will receive grant money. Wheeler has used past federal grants to develop a summer school, math lab, and an after-school program, Irvine said.

The $8.5 million in grants will be split among 68 Vermont schools, but the six high schools and four elementary schools identified as the lowest performing schools in the state will receive the bulk of the funds, Knopf said.

Funding System Discourages Educators
Press Release
Office of Senator Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the process of forcing out principals at schools that test poorly "scapegoating."

Worse, he said, ambitious teachers and principals who are attracted to the challenge of working to improve low-performing schools will be deterred because rigid federal legislation may force their firing. Joyce Irvine, the principal of the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler Elementary School, is one of up to three Vermont principals that could be forced from their schools in order to qualify for $8.5 million in federal grants, according to the Vermont Department of Education.

"When No Child Left Behind forces the firing of Joyce Irvine -- a gifted educator -- you send a signal to other educators not to tackle challenges at schools like Wheeler," Sanders said, referring to the tests that were used to determine the lowest performing schools.

Irvine will be replaced this summer, in part, because testing from No Child Left Behind was used to determine grant recipients. Irvine is not trying to stay on as principal, but she is concerned some candidates to replace her may be dissuaded because they, too, could be forced out if standardized test scores don't improve.

"I think it is wrong to judge schools solely on the basis of narrow tests. We have to work on what kind of criteria we really need," Sanders said. "What we in Vermont understand is a kid is more than a test. We want kids to be creative. We want kids to be critical thinkers."

Sanders held a town meeting earlier this month, to discuss the details of the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress is expected to re-consider this year. Sanders serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and will play a leading role in how current education law is reauthorized.

— Bernie Sanders
Press Release





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