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Schools Need to Be Whacked To Get Their Attention Says Florida Chancellor

ZEPHYRHILLS - Florida's schools will never meet federal standards under the No Child Left Behind law as long as students who have limited English skills are held to the same requirements as fluent speakers, state K-12 Chancellor Jim Warford told Pasco teachers and parents on Wednesday.

"The way it's written right now, in Florida, we will never make (adequate yearly progress)," Warford said during a two-hour education forum at Zephyrhills High. "I know that, I understand it . . . I am not in favor of an unfair standard."

Almost 87 percent of Florida's public schools did not meet the federal "adequate yearly progress" standard last year because their minority populations, special education students or nonfluent English speakers failed to show proficiency on the state's standardized test.

Title I schools that continue to miss that mark over the next several years could be subject to federally imposed penalties that could include a state takeover, according to the law. Title I schools are those that serve high percentages of students from low-income homes.

But, as Pasco County Teacher of the Year Freda Abercrombie lamented during the forum, students with limited English proficiency are classified as such precisely because they are not proficient.

When their understanding of English improves, they move out of that subgroup and a new group of English language strugglers takes their place.

Karen Johnson, assistant secretary for congressional affairs for the U.S. Department of Education, reassured those gathered that the government plans to tweak the current guidelines for non-English speakers as early as this week.

"As a result of the chancellor coming to us, because of you coming to us, hearing what you are saying, we are making changes to that regulation," Johnson said, prompting teacher applause.

During the forum, about 30 Pasco County teachers and parents aired their concerns and questions about the impact of the national and state educational accountability movement upon the classroom.

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, organized the event to improve dialogue and get suggestions on what is and isn't working in President Bush's two-year-old federal No Child Left Behind law.

Brown-Waite is running for re-election this November.

Warford, Brown-Waite, Johnson and another representative from the U.S. Department of Education fielded questions and addressed concerns about the Florida A-Plus accountability program and how it's being affected by the federal law.

Teachers questioned why it took high-stakes testing for the government to begin focusing money and resources on low-performing schools. Under the A-Plus plan, Florida grades its schools A to F based on how students perform on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, commonly known as the FCAT.

"I'm going to be very honest with you," Warford said, defending the A-Plus grading system.

"Until we put those scarlet letter F's on those doors, we could not have done the kinds of things that we did."

"Why?" many in audience inquired loudly, in unison.

"The A-plus plan and this accountability system will prove to be the salvation (of this state)," Warford responded, likening the F-grade to whacking a mule with a 2-by-4 in order to "get his attention."

Schools and students grades 3-10 are gearing up to take the main portion of the 2003-04 FCAT on March 1.

— Rebecca Catalanello
Parents, teachers voice education concerns
St Petersburg Times


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