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Failing Label Leaves School's Success Behind

Ohanian Comment: It's worth going to the article online--for the wonderful picture of a first grader reading a real book. Yes, a real book, one in the Henry and Mudge series. This picture is worth way more than 1,000 words of Standardista blather.

The federal government says the Howard C. Reiche Community School is failing, but Awies Abdallah disagrees.

Abdallah, a native of Somalia, said he is happy with the education his children are receiving, and he will keep them in the school where he works as a language facilitator. Abdallah said the families of his children's classmates feel the same way.

"When I talk with the Somali and Sudanese families, they say, 'We don't want to send our child to another school.' They don't have any problem here," Abdallah said. "They like Reiche School."

The contrast is stark. Reiche was listed this week as a "school in need of improvement" by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning that for two straight years, it has failed to meet standards under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The listing means that Reiche will get additional money and technical assistance from the state this year. Although the federal law allows states to eventually take over low-achieving schools and replace the staff, Maine education officials do not plan any punitive measures.

"We prefer to take a more supportive role," said Deputy Education Commissioner Pat- rick Phillips.

School officials and parents say that far from being a failing school, Reiche is successfully educating children, including the biggest population of non-English-speaking immigrants of any elementary school in the state.

Federal officials say the designation is designed to get information to parents that they won't get from school officials.

"One of the goals of No Child Left Behind is to introduce a new way to discuss performance," said Doug Mesecar, deputy chief of staff for policy with the U.S. Department of Education.

"People say, 'Oh, I like the teachers, I like the principal, it's a nice school,' " Mesecar said. "But they may not be asking, 'Is my child really acquiring the language skills he needs?' In terms of the school, it forces them to say, 'What can we do to improve ourselves?' "

Both are questions people connected with Reiche should be asking, he said.

No Child Left Behind has been criticized by many of Maine's educators as a bad fit for the state. They say it is designed for urban schools, and its ultimate sanction - offering parents in failing schools a choice to move to other public schools within the district - would not work in Maine because few districts here have more than one school at each level.

The Legislature is conducting a study of the impact of refusing federal education funds, which are negligible in many school districts, and opting out of No Child Left Behind.

But Reiche, in the heart of one of Maine's most densely populated neighborhoods, is different. Portland, with eight other mainland elementary schools, actually has school choice options for Reiche parents.

And unlike many schools in the Portland area, Reiche is dependent on federal funds. Because of its high population of economically disadvantaged students, it receives $650,000 a year, about a quarter of its $2.5 million budget, from the federal government. That money pays the salaries of six teachers and nine aides, said Principal Marcia Gendron.

At issue is Reiche's score on last year's Maine Educational Assessment, which graded the school's fourth-graders on reading and math. Those scores are used by the federal government to determine if a school meets a goal called "adequate yearly progress" for all of its students.

As a whole, Reiche's 80 fourth-graders passed both tests, but three identified subgroups failed to meet the standard in reading. The scores for those groups - students who are black, economically disadvantaged and speak limited English - have two years to improve for the school to avoid sanctions.

But dramatic improvement is unlikely for future fourth-graders, said Gendron, because all three subgroups essentially consist of recent immigrants. According to Reiche's track record, those students will make great strides and move through the school system as English speakers, she said.

But when next year's fourth grade is tested, there will be a new group of children who don't speak English and can't pass a reading test.

"One year, the test had an example that used the word 'avalanche' and the kids were asked questions about it," Gendron said. "Some of our kids have never seen winter, and may not have a word for 'avalanche' in their home language. This kind of a test is not consistent with how we evaluate their learning."

Another issue is Reiche's transient population.

Reiche began the last school year with 480 students and finished with 530, Gendron said. Every year, 35 percent of the school population typically turns over, as families move in and out of the district. Few of the fourth-graders who take the MEA have been getting a Reiche education since kindergarten. Testing a new group of fourth-graders next year, Gendron said, will not demonstrate the school's progress.

"That places us in a continuum that will be very hard to overcome," she said.

But Mesecar said the test results do point to a problem in the achievement of some students.

"It sounds like in this case, the school needs to take a look at how its reading program is working," Mesecar said. "It may be related to language or it could be related to curriculum."

As of last week, Reiche had 489 students, 60 percent of whom were learning to speak English. Native languages include Somalian, Acholi, Khmer, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian. Eighty-five percent of the students are

Abdallah, who was a teacher in Somalia, has worked as a language facilitator at Reiche for six years, helping teachers in the ESL - English as a Second Language - Program. He said students who never hear English at home and may not have fully acquired their own language need four or five years in school before they can fully communicate in English.

"Some of these children have no schooling before they come here," he said. "Some come here straight from the refugee camps, where it's hard to find a school. In the United States, they look at how old they are and put them in a grade. If they are 15, they go to high school, no matter what."

The U.S. Department of Education has recognized the problems of new immigrants and has included flexibility in the rules, Mesecar said. A child has a one-year exemption from testing after arriving in the country, and schools can continue to count them in the "limited English" subgroup for two years after they finish an ESL program.

That should lift the subgroup's average score, he said, and give schools credit for progress made by students in their system.

But two years is not enough, said Grace Valenzuela, the director of Portland's Multi-Lingual Program. She said students who enter the system as English-learners should be tracked as part of that group throughout their career in school.

Pam Richards, the mother of a Reiche fourth-grader, said she doesn't consider Reiche a failing school, but worries the government label will give it a stigma.

"There are probably some parents who will be concerned," she said. "But overall, most parents recognize the situation. We just don't think that the test takes in all the differences in language proficiencies at Reiche."

Richards said the large immigrant population is a strength for the school, not a problem.

"When you bring kids from other countries into the classroom, you bring in all of their experience," Richards said. "As the world shrinks, it is great for my children to be exposed to children from other cultures."

Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor said Reiche deserves recognition from the federal government, just not the kind it's getting.

"I would have expected that the federal government would look at Reiche as a blue-ribbon school," O'Connor said.

— Gregory D. Kesich
Press & Herald


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