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NCLB Outrages

NCLB shuts window on at-risk students

I would like Spellings to travel to Somalia, enter a public school, spend eight months learning Swahili, and then take and pass a reading and math test in that language.

by Jay L. Barrett

"No Child Left Behind."

Such language evokes images of a battlefield where weary, war-torn soldiers, bloodied and bruised in battle, return to the site of conflict to retrieve their wounded or dead.

Indeed, a phrase that suggests that lives are at risk is no less emotional when academic lives are at stake. Certainly we must not leave kids behind. No one in his right mind would march in the streets holding up a banner that reads "Leave Some Children Behind."

Whether or not to leave a child behind is not the issue; the definition of what it means to bring a child forward is. It's at the critical epicenter of public schools today.

A recent ruling about English Language Learner students forced upon the Texas Education Agency to satisfy the leviathan NCLB proves this to be all too true.

As a 22-year veteran of public schools in Texas, I have seen all fronts of the educational field of battle. I have taught or been administrator at both the primary and secondary level, in schools of varying affluence. I have some measure of experience in not leaving children behind.

For the past seven years, I have been principal of Travis Middle School, a sixth-to-eighth-grade campus with 800 students. Travis has several student groups with a variety of needs, including 151 students who are identified as ELL, our most at-risk group.

Texas schools operate under two accountability systems: NCLB and the Texas Education Agency's Academic Excellence Indicator System. Often, the TEA struggles to fit its own system of accountability within the framework of the U.S. Department of Education, under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

For educators, it's the equivalent of trying to stick a VHS tape into a DVD player - the harder you try to shove the tape in, the more frustrated you become. And if you do succeed in inserting the tape, you don't have a prayer seeing a picture on the screen.

In Texas, ELL students get a three-year exemption from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. During this window, they focus on not only acquiring the English language and acculturating to the American way of life, but also on obtaining the knowledge and skills necessary to master the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills on grade level as tested on the TAKS.

But under NCLB, this growth window is a thing of the past.

Under the new requirements, if these students, many of whom are unschooled in their home countries, do not pass the TAKS in their second year, even though they are making progress, they are considered "non-proficient" and work against the school's accountability rating.

For schools like mine, this is devastating news.

About one-third of the ELL students at Travis are new immigrants from Somalia, brought to the United States by our government as refugees. Even though they are Somali, most of them have never seen Somalia because they have been living in Kenyan refugee camps all their lives due to the war-torn conditions that have existed in Somalia since the early 1990s.

These kids have never been to school. Never been to school. They have absolutely no educational background. Yet, we have one year or less to move these 10- to 12-year-old unschooled children through seven to nine years of education. Even with a plethora of academic strategies in place to accelerate learning, as Travis has, these students will struggle to meet USDE's requirements. When research says that children need five to seven years of language development to adequately learn in another language, it makes little sense to push that envelope to one year's time.

To that end, I respectfully challenge Secretary Spellings (whose bachelor's degree is in political science, not education) to meet the same set of criteria she and NCLB are placing on kids and schools today.

I would like Spellings to travel to Somalia, enter a public school, spend eight months learning Swahili, and then take and pass a reading and math test in that language. I'll even give her a break - the test only has to be at the eighth-grade level, not "on grade level" as NCLB requires. She cannot return to U.S. soil until she passes the reading and math test in Swahili. Is that fair? No, but it makes as much sense as what is currently happening in the politically charged environment of education today.

Until Spellings' return, which may be some time from now, educators in Texas and across the nation will unapologetically continue to meet the needs of each and every child, even those newest to our country who speak no English but want a better life.

Like soldiers on education's battlefield, we will march together under a banner that reads "Bring All Children Forward."

Jay L. Barrett is an Amarillo resident and is principal of Travis Middle School in Amarillo.

— Jay L. Barrett
Amarillo Globe News


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