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NCLB Outrages

Teachers Say No Child Left Behind Should Study Bigger Picture

Ohanian Comment: It's too bad when educators applaud NCLB--except for one little piece. I wonder how they'll feel when that little piece proves to be a cancer that will eat up their reputation.

R.I. schools listed as needing improvement under the federal act say the guidelines are too narrow and fail to take into account major strides in other areas.

The lights dim. Principal Lori Hughes points to a chart that shows how fourth graders have performed on a series of reading and math tests.

"Green is good," she says to parents, pointing to the bar graphs. "Give yourself a round of applause for having so much green."

Students at the Charles Fortes Elementary School in Providence have made double-digit gains in math and English this year. Their basic math scores are the second-highest in the district.

A former cotton factory off Cranston Street, the school building is spotless. The walls are decorated with student work -- dioramas, drawings, even a dollhouse -- that illustrate the neighborhood's working-class past. More important, students and staff seem happy to be here.

Yet Fortes is listed as a school in need of improvement. According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, parents here have the right to send their children to a better school.

Why? Because Fortes, a predominantly poor school where Spanish is the primary language for most students, missed one out of 21 targets set by the federal government -- for students with disabilities in English.

ACROSS Rhode Island, many schools that have shown marked improvement in reading, writing and math have wound up on the list of 39 schools that, by law, must offer children the chance to attend school somewhere else. Some of these schools must offer choice because they missed one or two targets.

The federal rules governing school choice are complex. If a school misses one or more of its 21 performance targets for two consecutive years, it must allow children to transfer to a better school. If a school fails to improve for a third year, the school must also offer tutoring and choice. In year four, the state can intervene and demand that the school come up with an improvement plan, as was the case last year at Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School.

Not only must the entire grade meet its targets in English and math, but each subgroup -- blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native-Americans, whites, students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency and low-income students -- must meet those targets as well. Moreover, schools must meet test participation targets in both math and English as well as an attendance requirement.

In Rhode Island, six districts -- Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Central Falls, Lincoln and Bristol-Warren -- have schools that failed in at least one target area and were forced to offer choice this fall.

ACROSS THE country, schools are complaining that No Child Left Behind is unfair because it penalizes schools -- especially poor ones -- that face the greatest challenges. Instead of rewarding schools that show steady improvement, critics say the law punishes schools for missing just one target, which may involve only a handful of students.

"I don't think NCLB is a bad law," Hughes says. "I think we should be held accountable. But there is no middle ground. You are either failing or succeeding."

Yet, very few parents in Rhode Island are choosing to send their children to another school when given the opportunity.

In Providence, where 24 schools landed on the "choice" list, about 320 children out of a possible 13,000 sought transfers. However, a community action group said that almost 70 families of students at the Alfred A. Lima Elementary School did not receive letters explaining their options. The district says it sent out 13,000 letters in late August and 300 were returned as undeliverable.

The Providence elementary students who have sought transfers will be placed in one of the 11 better performing schools in the district, but the reassignment process will not be completed until the end of this week. Choice is not practical at the middle school level in Providence, however, because all the city's middle schools have been classified as needing improvement. They will instead offer supplemental services.

In Woonsocket, two elementary schools have to offer choice this year. At Citizens Memorial, 34 students transferred out of a possible 359, and at the Kevin Coleman School, 4 out of 240 have transferred.

Coleman is an example of how the federal accountability system is at odds with what's going on within the school. Coleman met all of its 21 targets this year. In fact, the school outperformed the district and the state in seven performance categories.

Yet Coleman must offer choice because a school must show improvement for two years in a row to come off the "needs improvement" list.

Principal George Nasuti says it makes no sense to bus children to another school when Coleman, because it is a high-poverty school, offers more programs for students struggling with basic reading and writing. If students transfer to another elementary school, they might not be able to get the same kinds of services.

By contrast, Citizens School, which missed two targets, has suffered from a high turnover in both leadership and staff. Four principals have come and gone in as many years and the current principal was transferred to the middle school last month.

In Woonsocket, the choice process has also been riddled with problems. The state Department of Education overlooked a Title I elementary school that was failing last year and ended up on the improving list this year. And one child was transferred three times because he was caught in the crossfire between choice and overcrowding.

Newport was taken off the "needs improvement" list shortly after the school district challenged the designation. The state recalculated the Sullivan School's test scores and found that students had improved. In Sullivan's case, the results of three student test scores made the difference between an improving school and a school of choice.

The Bristol-Warren School District also appealed the "needs improvement" designation at Colt-Andrews, but lost.

The district had learned in August that Colt-Andrews Elementary School -- which had shown significant improvement and had met all its targets -- had been labeled as "needs improvement" because its special-education students did not meet their targets in 2003. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools must improve in all target areas two years in a row.

The district's appeal was rejected last month by the state Department of Education, and now the district must offer choice to Colt-Andrews students.

Only a half-dozen students put Northern Lincoln Elementary School on the needs improvement list. This group of students qualifies for the free lunch program, which means they come from poor households.

Principal Linda Cliff says it's inaccurate to label an entire school as failing when only one small subgroup is struggling.

She says the federal law singles out low-income schools for punishment because only schools that receive federal Title I money are required to offer choice or after-school tutoring. Title I funding is supposed to help children from low-income households.

Suburban schools may be performing poorly, too, but if they don't receive Title I funds, they don't have to offer choice or tutoring.

That said, only 13 families took their children out of Northern Lincoln Elementary and those who did did so for reasons other than academic standing. Cliff says most parents sought transfers because their children have friends at other schools. Others were new to the district.

Cliff, like most of her colleagues, believes that the intent of No Child Left Behind -- to pressure schools to get all children to high standards -- is commendable. But she thinks that the law's implementation is deeply flawed.

"If certain groups of kids are failing, letting kids move isn't the answer," she says. "Let's look at why these kids are failing and figure out what to do about it."

In Pawtucket, only 23 students out of 3,900 chose to transfer to a better school. Six schools, including Shea High School, were classified as schools in need of improvement. Once again, convenience, not academic performance, was the main reason why parents opted for another school.

While Jenks Junior High has failed to hit its targets for four consecutive years, the problem at Shea High School wasn't low test scores but poor test participation and a below-par graduation rate.

Although fourth graders made substantial gains across the board, Curvin-McCabe Elementary School landed on the choice list because it did not improve for two years in a row. When Pawtucket Schools Supt. Hans Dellith met last month with parents from Curvin-McCabe, he told them, "I don't know why we're here."

"The law falls down in having absolutely unrealistic expectations," Dellith says. "It's like asking the automobile industry to build cars that will withstand all accidents all of the time."

The most dramatic improvements took place in Providence, especially in the elementary schools. In basic reading, more than two-thirds of the elementary schools improved and nine showed double-digit gains. In writing effectiveness, all 25 elementary schools improved and 21 had double-digit increases.

Providence Schools Supt. Melody Johnson calls them "unprecedented gains" that are the product of 10 years of reforms and professional development.

"I was jumping for joy that we had made these gains," says Hughes, the Fortes principal. "You work so hard for so long and it was like, 'Yes, we finally did it!' I couldn't wait to tell the staff."

The next morning, Hughes opened the newspaper and read that Fortes was one of 14 Providence elementary schools on the list of under-performing schools. She wanted to cry.

At an open house on Wednesday, 100 parents and students visited Fortes, where they were welcomed with homemade goodies, special T-shirts and warm smiles. As children buzzed through the corridors, a few parents took time out to share their thoughts.

"This is my second home," says Wanda Manso, who moved here from Puerto Rico. "When I come here, I feel welcome. Everybody knows me."

Edith Figueroa says she shook her head in disbelief when she read the letter from the district explaining that her school had to offer choice:

"I say, 'What?' My first one went here and he started learning right way. How can you call it a bad school when my kids are doing good? My children like it here. They like to come back every day."

— Linda Borg
Providence Journal


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