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NCLB Outrages

California schools caught in squeeze between federal, state laws

The school board burst out laughing when they were told that Escondido, of all places, had failed No Child Left Behind.


By Martha Mendoza

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) --

Troy Henderson leans close to his paper, composing letters with all the academic intensity of a first grader. He notices he's being watched by the school principal and sets down his pencil.

"Hello Mr. Prehn," he says, smiling broadly.

"Hello Troy," responds Gary Prehn. "How's your father? Did you know I used to teach him?"

Escondido Elementary School principal Gary Prehn knows all of his 480 students, he really knows them, their names, their strengths, their weaknesses, their parents, their interests. He sends them each birthday greetings. He knows who is excellent with a hula hoop, who is struggling to write essays.

But he refuses to count them.

"Our mission here is to educate children to the best of our ability, and that's where I spend my time and energy. Not getting into the political games of the No Child Left Behind Act," he said.

Despite student performance that is well above California's average, Escondido has been caught in a nuance of the federal law that puts major funding and a well-earned reputation at risk.

Overall, California's schools lag behind most of the nation on almost every measurement of student achievement, funding, teacher qualifications and school facilities, according to a 2005 RAND Corporation analysis. Last year, 3,618 of California's 9,223 schools failed to meet at least one of the No Child Left Behind standards.

Those strict mandates, now entering their fifth year, have been widely criticized in California. Education Secretary Jack O'Connell argues the state's own school rating system, the 1999 Academic Performance Indicator, should be allowed to replace the federal law.

"Without this change, we will continue to experience the confusing and frustrating situation where one day a school is lauded for its performance gains and then on the next day condemned as a failure," O'Connell said.

Which is what happened already once at Escondido and could happen again.

If the school has more than 50 Hispanic students this year, it risks failing the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. That's what happened in 2004. If there are fewer than 50 Hispanic children, it passes, which happened in 2005.

Test scores of Hispanic students at this school are well above national averages and rising steadily. The school fails, however, if not enough of them take the test.

Here's the problem: California law says parents must be allowed to opt out of standardized tests. But federal law says that if there are more than 50 students in a particular minority group, and less than 95 percent of those in that group take the test, the school is "red flagged."

In 2004, a Chilean family spending a year at Stanford University brought three children to Escondido and opted out of testing. The result was that the school was ranked as a low-performing school under federal law.

The predicament stunned the community. Escondido is a top performing, diverse school whose Academic Performance Index score was 886 last year, well above the federally required minimum of 590.

Students represent 32 countries and speak more than 25 different languages. Some are the children of top researchers, professors and scientists employed at Stanford University; others are the children of laborers and immigrants, bused to Escondido from East Palo Alto.

In fact, the school board burst out laughing when they were told that Escondido, of all places, had failed No Child Left Behind.

Prehn and his teachers had initiated their own program to keep kids from slipping through the cracks. It's called "Whatever It Takes." Under the program, low-performing students are identified, reviewed and then individually provided anything they need to bring their test scores up.

The system works during the past five years, minority students' test scores, already well above national averages, have steadily climbed.

Also worrisome, said Prehn, is that aside from teacher salaries, more than half of his school's entire annual $225,000 budget comes from Title 1 federal funds, which could be limited if it failed the federal requirements for several consecutive years.

— Martha Mendoza, Associated Press
San Francisco Chronicle
2006-04-19


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