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Parents Face Tough Decisions on Schools

OCALA - Ocala Springs Elementary received an A for the fourth consecutive year under the state's grading system but failed No Child Left Behind last week.

Wyomina Park Elementary didn't make an A but passed No Child.

And while many of Marion County's elementary schools have earned As, some still have high numbers of students who can't read at grade level, raising questions about what really constitutes a top school.

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public school students now have more choices than ever. Because their schools failed federal requirements last week, students at 18 Marion elementary schools are eligible to attend different schools this fall.

But with the introduction of No Child, which at times directly contrasts with Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ plan, determining a good school has become no easy matter. Gone are the days when school-hunting parents simply sought advice from neighbors or real estate agents.

They now are faced with mounds of information: school grades, FCAT scores, Adequate Yearly Progress (the term used under No Child to define a passing school) and other data.

"I would say it's probably a little bit of information overload," said David Alvarez, a Marion County parent with two children in the school system.

In 1999, the state began assigning letter grades to schools based on how students performed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. While critics questioned the value of a grading system, school grades provided the public with a snapshot of how individual schools were performing.

Since then, however, the state has changed its method for calculating school grades. Now, schools can also earn points under the grading system if lower-performing students make annual improvements. In other words, a school can receive an "A" for effort.

Then came No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's national education reform, which began rating Florida schools last year.

No Child Left Behind measures academic performance for individual subgroups of students, including whites, blacks, Hispanics and those with disabilities. The federal evaluation is a do-or-die proposition. Schools must earn passing marks in all categories to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), the federal term for passing.

Federally funded schools failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two consecutive years must allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools.

Because the state's grading system and No Child Left Behind use different criteria, school results can clash, as was the case in Florida last week when more schools than ever earned A grades but fewer than a quarter made AYP.

To make things easier for parents, the state this year released school grades and No Child results at the same time and under a new format. Information from both reports has been condensed into "an annual report card" which lists a school's grade, AYP status and other data.

While state officials say the format should help parents draw connections between the reports, others say it has only muddled things.

"How do you explain that Anthony Elementary made 93 percent of AYP but is a failing school?" asked Marion County schools spokesman Kevin Christian, who believes parents are still relying mainly on school grades.

"And the reason may be Exceptional Student Education kids, who with all due respect, may never test at the same level as mainstream kids. I think parents are going to be overwhelmed with that info. Heck, we're overwhelmed with it."

Jim Oram, whose two children attend Romeo Elementary, which earned an A grade but failed No Child for a second year, said he's not interested in the federal law's school choice program.

"I wouldn't move my kids from that school," he said. "It's a good school. The teachers are there and they're intelligent. They're always more than willing to talk with me."

Though not a fan of standardized testing, Oram said he has more confidence in the state's accountability system, which he believes is more tune with Florida's schools.

"I would give an A from a school more weight than I would a report from the feds," said Oram, who has returned to school to study education.

So in this age of AYP and A, B, C, how does one go about choosing a school?

Educators and others familiar with the subject say there's no single answer, no cookie-cutter approach to the problem. Rather, parents should consider as much information as possible before selecting a school.

When comparing and rating schools, GreatSchools.Net, an online publication, relies on test scores, class size ratios, attendance, graduation rates and other criteria. Editor Lisa Rosenthal said parents should go beyond standardized test scores and school grades, and look at other factors, including teacher experience, per-student funding and ethnic diversity.

Rosenthal recommends that parents decide what they're looking for in a school then make a personal visit. Once they're there, they should inquire about the school's educational philosophy, discipline policies, physical education and art programs, library resources and other areas. She warns that selecting a school is subjective.

"You would think that you'd want a school with high test scores," she said. "But a school with high test scores can put a lot of pressure on kids, and some parents may not want that."

Jim Gallimore, principal of Ocala Springs Elementary, which passed 90 percent of the No Child requirements but fell short in the area of students with disabilities, said parents should first consider their neighborhood schools, where children attend school with friends and those in their community.

In addition to studying a school's online data, he also encourages parents to visit campuses and chat with administrators to "get a feel for the school culture."

Alvarez, who serves on several school system committees, said he learned about No Child Left Behind by getting online and reading various Web sites. With access to loads of information, he advised other parents to go beyond researching a school's letter grade.

"Just looking at the school grade doesn't tell you the full story," he said. "Dig a little deeper than just looking at an A, B, or a C."

Steven Ray Haberlin covers education. He can be reached at steve.haberlin@starbanner.com or 867-4157.

— Steven Ray Haberlin
Star Banner


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