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Federal Rating May Force School Program Cuts

DAYTONA BEACH -- Summer school may not be every child's dream, but 10-year-old Samantha Hill thinks it's a great way to spend June.

"It's different from other summer camps," Samantha said Wednesday of the Voyager math and reading program with an ancient Greece theme she's attending at Bonner Elementary School.

"They don't learn like this; they play," the fourth-grader said of children attending those "other" programs. "We go on computers and do math, read and do crafts. It's really fun."

Depending on the latest round of state and federal school ratings the Florida Department of Education is scheduled to release today, this may be the last summer children like Samantha attend the program Volusia schools have used for four years to boost youngsters' math and reading skills.

The Voyager program is targeted for elimination next summer so $626,145 can be diverted to busing children from high-poverty Volusia schools that fail for a second year to make "adequate progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Funding for the summer program, serving 1,745 children this year, could be restored if less busing is required once Volusia officials know how their schools fare this year and how many parents take them up on a federally required offer to transfer to other schools.

Only 10 of 74 Volusia and Flagler schools met the federal progress standard when such ratings were released for the first time last year, and local officials aren't expecting much difference this year given the ratings' all-or-nothing scoring system.

State officials plan to release the federal ratings today, along with A-F grades for each Florida public school and a new online "report card" to brief parents on how their child's school is doing. State grades for Volusia and Flagler schools were the best ever last year.

The new report cards -- to be posted on the Florida Department of Education Web site at www.fldoe.org -- also will include a "school efficiency indicator" that rates schools on how well their students perform relative to how much money is spent on their education.

"Report cards make sense for parents," Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne said this month in announcing the new format. "We think parents armed with knowledge will make the best decisions for their children."

But not everyone believes a two-page summary of the complex and often contradictory state and federal ratings will tell parents what they need to know. "It sounds to me that it's going to be a tad confusing to people," said Judy Conte, chairwoman of the Volusia County School Board.

The state and federal ratings are both based on reading, writing and math scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but they use the information in different ways.

The federal system rates a school in up to 45 categories, including test scores for five racial groups, students from poor families, disabled students and those who speak limited English as well as the entire student body. A school fails to make adequate progress if it misses the mark in even one category.

The state system doesn't break down the scores that way and gives schools credit for year-to-year improvements. It uses a range of grades instead of a simple pass or fail. Top-rated schools earn cash rewards; students at schools that fail in two years out of four are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools.

While Volusia and Flagler school officials say they're all for high standards and accountability, they point to what they consider to be fatal flaws in the federal rating system that need to be fixed.

They include widely varying standards from state to state on how school progress is measured, the all-or-nothing rating system and, now, the requirement to divert money from educational programs to busing.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts to allow children attending schools that receive federal Title I funds because they serve large numbers of students from low-income families to transfer elsewhere if their schools fail to make adequate progress for two years.

Assistant Superintendent Chris Colwell said Volusia plans to mail letters to parents of those children the week of June 21 outlining "a menu" of options, some of which could include special programs in their assigned schools.

He's not expecting a flood of transfer requests, based on what happened in several other Florida school districts where the federal choice requirement kicked in last year.

"Their experience was the vast majority of parents were satisfied with the schools their children were attending and the number wanting to be transferred was limited," he said.

With limited or no transfer options likely to be available in Flagler, officials there are looking at another way to provide the "meaningful choice" mandated under the federal law.

Subject to state approval, Flagler officials plan to offer tutoring programs before and after school. "It seems to make a lot more sense to use our dollars in that way," said Mary Ann Haas, executive director of curriculum and instruction. "We just didn't see shuffling (students) from one A school to another A school." All Flagler schools earned A's last year except B-rated Flagler Palm Coast High School.

While it will be some time before it's known whether the Voyager program will survive for next summer, teacher Kathy Roam is hoping it can be saved for other children like Samanatha.

Otherwise, Roan said: "The kids are going to lose out."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Keeping tabs on schools

The state's school-grading system and the federal "adequate yearly progress" determination are both based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. Key differences include:

Florida school grades

Reading, math and writing scores count toward schools' A-F grades, with reading scores carrying the greatest weight.

Schools earn points for students scoring at or above grade level.

Extra credit is given for students' year-to-year improvements and progress among the previous year's lowest-scoring students.

Federal adequate progress

A school is rated in up to 45 categories, depending on student body diversity.

Ratings are based on the number of students overall who read, write and do math at or above grade level, and broken down by five racial groups, economic status, disabilities and English proficiency.

Schools failing in even one category fail to make "adequate yearly progress" overall.

SOURCE: Florida Department of Education

— Linda Trimble
Daytona News Journal


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