Red Clay sues state over testing
By Mike Chalmers
When Principal Irene Hills walks the halls at Warner Elementary School in Wilmington, she never sees 35 of the students she's technically responsible for educating.
Those students live in Warner's boundaries, but they actually attend Richardson Park Intensive Learning Center in Christiana Hundred, which is designed to meet their special-education needs. When they take annual state tests, though, their scores are counted as if they were Warner students.
That practice is simply unfair, said officials with the Red Clay Consolidated School District, who announced Wednesday they are suing the Delaware Department of Education to stop it. Warner is one of Red Clay's 14 elementary schools.
"You can only be accountable for the students you teach, not the ones who are sent to another building," Red Clay Superintendent Robert J. Andrzejewski said.
Officials from school districts across the state agree the state's practice is unfair and will watch the lawsuit with interest. But Education Secretary Valerie Woodruff said the state's practice is appropriate and necessary to make school districts provide the best education possible to special-education students.
"The schools of residence [such as Warner] are the schools that are responsible for their education," Woodruff said. "It's the district's responsibility to oversee the education program for every child, certainly a child with a disability. It's unfortunate that Red Clay is spending its time and money on a lawsuit when they could be spending it on programs."
Facilities such as Richardson Park provide special services and are not stand-alone schools responsible for a student's entire education, Woodruff said.
"There should be an expectation that the school of residence and the [intensive learning center] are working together on the child's education plan," she said.
Because the scores of those 35 Richardson Park students were included in Warner's assessment, Warner failed to make adequate progress toward federal targets for the fifth year in a row this year. As a result, the school must develop a restructuring plan, which could include replacing its entire staff or converting into a charter school.
"We have continually improved our scores here," Hills said. "But when we get a report like that, it's like nobody's actually looking at our progress."
The district's lawsuit, filed Wednesday at Chancery Court, outlines a similar problem at Marbrook Elementary School near Prices Corner, which is also in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. At Marbrook, one student attended Richardson Park and two attended the district's Compass Alternative School. Without those students' scores factored in, the schools would have met targets established by the federal No Child Left Behind law, Andrzejewski said.
If the schools fail to make adequate progress next year, the restructuring plans would be implemented.
The idea behind the practice is to hold school districts accountable when it comes to teaching special-education students, said Patricia Maichle, senior administrator of the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council, a state agency that advocates for people with disabilities.
"It's the right thing to do to make schools and districts responsible for kids," Maichle said. "They never have before, so we'll see how this all turns out."
Red Clay officials, though, said restructuring the schools would be pointless because their teachers and staff have no impact on the Richardson Park and Compass students whose scores led to the poor ratings.
"How does one hold someone accountable for something they have no control over?" said Irwin J. Becnel Jr., president of the Red Clay school board.
Special-education students should be given a test to measure their abilities, Becnel said, and Richardson Park should be measured separately from the district's other schools.
"I don't know why the state has zeroed in on Richardson Park," Becnel said. "Why not include every charter school and vo-tech school? Why not assign those students back to their home schools, too?"
Lawrence Stansbury, president of the Warner PTA, said he hopes the district's lawsuit changes the way the state handles the scores of special-education students.
"Warner Elementary is doing marvelous work," Stansbury said. "It's important we come up with a way to correct the injustice that's been done."
The practice is unfair to teachers, too, said Michael Bank, president of the Red Clay Education Association and a counselor at Richardson Park.
"Teachers want to be accountable," Bank said. "We're proud of what we do, but we want to be treated fairly. Is it fair those students' scores are sent over to Warner? No."
Other superintendents agreed the practice is unfair, even though their schools aren't affected as dramatically as Warner.
"It's a concern to all of us," said Tina Huff, assistant superintendent of Capital School District in Dover. "One or two kids' scores can make a difference at a school."
"It's hard to understand why you'd be penalized when you don't have the student," said Deborah D. Wicks, superintendent of Smyrna School District. "The system is trying to make every student accountable to someone. There should be a better system, but don't ask me what that would be."
Bruce Harter, superintendent of Brandywine School District, said separate facilities for special-education or troubled students are much more expensive than regular schools.
"It's not like we're looking to place kids out of school," Harter said. "It's because the child's needs drive that placement."
At Brandywine, officials gradually have been eliminating separate facilities and moving special-education students back into their regular schools. Harter said research shows those students learn better in regular classrooms.
"The more inclusive we can be, the better the kids will do," Harter said.
The Red Clay lawsuit is the first formal protest in Delaware to the four-year-old No Child Left Behind law, according to a survey released in August by the nonprofit Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank. There have been legislative or legal challenges to the law in every other state, the survey found.
Connecticut has sued the federal Department of Education, claiming the law is essentially an unfunded mandate, making it illegal. Last week, federal attorneys filed motions to squash the lawsuit, saying Connecticut has accepted more than $750 million in federal money but now wants to abandon its obligations.
In November, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by the National Education Association that challenged whether the federal government had adequately funded the law. Nine schools and school districts in Michigan, Texas and Vermont joined the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, in arguing states should not have to meet the law's requirements because the federal government had not provided enough money to do so.
In some states, local school boards have voted to join the NEA or Connecticut lawsuits. Earlier this year, a Maryland legislator urged the state's congressional delegation to either seek full funding for the law or get a waiver from its requirements. New Jersey legislators in June voted to tell school officials that state academic goals take priority over the federal law.
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