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NCLB Outrages

Napa High School, a state standout, is considered a federal failure

Ohanian Comment: This, of course, is a familiar tale . . . repeated ad nauseam across the country. Read NEA President's outrageous statement on NCLB in the New York Times.

Nanette Asimov

Napa High Principal Barbara Franco (center) talks with se... Elizabeth Bejarano (left) reads with other students at th... Cindy Watter lectures during her honors English class. Sh... Hilary Zunin quit teaching at Napa, writing to the bill's... More...

Napa High School has so impressed the state's top education brass that they've declared it a California Distinguished School in recognition of its good scores, stellar performing arts programs, and success at helping needy kids.

Rogelio Ramirez was one of those kids. He sold bottled water on the streets of Mexico until 2002, when he immigrated with his family to the United States. He spoke no English, but with help from teachers at Napa High, Ramirez was soon taking one advanced-placement class after another, participating in clubs and sports, and maintaining an A+ average until he graduated in June. Brown University, the highly selective Rhode Island college, snapped him up.

"Academically, I would give Napa an A," said Ramirez, 18. "It's a pretty good school."

But the federal No Child Left Behind Act - the dominant force in public education today - has a different grade for Napa High: F, for failing.

That's because Napa last year was supposed to achieve 22 academic objectives (see box) required by the law. It achieved 21.

It meant the school had failed to get enough English learners scoring high enough on an English test. The law said 43 of the school's 195 English learners had to score at grade level.

They missed by 10 kids.

"Isn't that the wildest thing in the world?" asked Napa High Principal Barbara Franco.

But near misses don't count under No Child Left Behind, and Franco and her staff were astonished that the whole school had to undergo drastic changes even though all student groups but one, the English learners, met targets.

That failure plunged the state-designated Distinguished School into federally mandated "Program Improvement," forcing Franco to reorganize the curriculum for all ninth- and 10th-graders this year, retrain teachers, and ditch a lot of literature in favor of simpler anthologies.

"We had to write six new courses of study to support the students," Franco said. "That was a pain. But Program Improvement is not going backwards. It's more rigorous - they want kids at grade level. People don't get that."

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the sweeping education reform act that expires this year, lawmakers are considering which of its myriad rules will live or die.

The case of Napa High illustrates the central dilemma Congress is wrestling with: Are kids helped or harmed by requiring them to score at grade level in math and English?

Until now, Napa offered academic interventions only to the lowest of the low performers. But under Program Improvement, every ninth- and 10th-grader scoring below grade level gets help.

"It's a huge shift," Franco said, admitting she has mixed feelings about the law. "High schools don't like to be told what to do. But in a twisted way, it's good. Help me understand - what's wrong with helping students learn to read?"

At the same time, drastic penalties apply if Napa High fails to get the required percentage of students scoring at grade level within five years: Teachers and the principal could be fired, or the school could be taken over by an outside agency.

This year, Napa again missed the mark for English learners - this time, by 13 students. All other student groups met their targets.

"It just feels so draconian," Franco said. "How can we be so good, yet be going into Year 2 of Program Improvement? It doesn't make any sense."

And Napa High is not alone.

Across California, nearly 1 in 4 schools - 2,208 - have been assigned to Program Improvement for failing to make "adequate yearly progress" for two years in a row. Next year, the number of failing schools is expected to balloon even higher as the law increases the percentage of students who must score at grade level - climbing from about 25 percent to about 35 percent.

The percentage rises each year until 2014, when 100 percent of students have to be proficient in English and math, according to No Child Left Behind.

Although every school is required to raise test scores, Program Improvement applies only to those that get federal Title I funds for needy children. In California, about 6,500 schools of the state's 9,500 schools receive Title I money.

At Napa this year, Program Improvement forced many students to postpone - though not eliminate - electives so they could double up on math and English. And most teachers had to take a class to learn to use a new anthology text from Holt Publishers that has worksheets, benchmark tests and an essay-grading program. The anthology, with its plot summaries and helpful prompts, replaced literature this year for more than 360 ninth- and 10th-graders.

"I did not attend the workshop," said Cindy Watter, who will continue to teach literature in her honors English class. "I would rather have had chemotherapy."

Extreme reactions to No Child Left Behind are not uncommon among teachers. Some even act on them.

For 18 years, Hilary Zunin taught Shakespeare and other literature to students of all ages and skill levels at Napa High.

Last spring, she learned that most freshmen and sophomores would soon be reading the Holt anthology instead of the books that had always been required, including John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Night," by Elie Wiesel.

"There are a lot of people living good lives in this country who aren't able to write a cohesive paragraph and don't know grammar," Zunin said. "I'm more concerned about them being able to put themselves in someone else's shoes - which is the essence of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' I'm more concerned with them being able to feel compassion and to question authority in a constructive way, which is the essence of 'Night.' I'm more concerned with them looking at the nature of friendship, which is at the heart of 'Of Mice and Men.' "

But Zunin recognized that her concept of education was incompatible with No Child Left Behind. So, years earlier than she intended, the teacher who had once taught others how to inspire in students a love of literature said goodbye to Napa High.

"NCLB is tearing the heart out of learning for my students and has torn the joy out of my work," Zunin wrote to Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a co-author of No Child Left Behind who now chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor that is handling the law's renewal.

Zunin's distaste for the law is typical of many teachers across the country who see No Child Left Behind as an affront to the role of a teacher, as defined nearly 70 years ago by the humanist Helen Keller in a speech to the National Education Association: "One who breathes life into knowledge so that it takes new form in progress and civilization."

Can that be said of the disembodied computer voice guiding 129 specially chosen Napa High freshmen and sophomores this year through drills in basic reading and writing?

Actually, yes, many students say.

"It's helpful," said 15-year-old Araceli Hernandez, one of 56 sophomores assigned to "Read 180," a step-by-step, computer-based reading course designed to accelerate low-scoring students by two years. That is, it's supposed to turn their skills around 180 degrees in one year.

"It helps you learn how to spell the words better, and you get to understand what they're reading," said Araceli, who was born in Jalisco, Mexico. "It was difficult last year because I couldn't understand how to do paragraphs and everything. But now that I got into this program, it's better."

Read 180's price of about $30,000 per class highlights another frequent complaint about the law: It's underfunded.

This year, Congress is authorized to spend more than $39 billion on No Child Left Behind. Instead, it will spend less than $24 billion. So Napa had to dip into state lottery money and a legal settlement with Microsoft to buy Read 180.

In all, No Child Left Behind is a "double-edged sword," said Elena Toscano, assistant superintendent of instruction with the Napa Valley Unified School District. It's demanding, expensive, and its sanctions are not always welcome. But it's also a wake-up call, she said.

"It's about meeting the needs of our students by doing business in a different way for some of them," Toscano said. "We weren't getting the results for every kid."

Go the url below for charts.

— Nanette Asimov
San Francisco Chronicle


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