Sharing the Burden for School Success
Ohanian Comment: Three cheers for editorialists who support their schools, telling the public why this is a flawed law.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Mount Anthony Union middle and high schools are not failing. Not by a long shot.
In fact, MAU schools have improved - rather significantly. A subhead on our lead story in Tuesday's paper was poorly chosen and gave the inaccurate impression that the schools aren't making progress; it would have more truthful to say "middle and high schools still fall short in some areas," or something to that effect.
Because the truth is, if one were to compare the scores of the high school against many other schools in the state, including those in more affluent communities, MAU is scoring as well or better. What got the high school into hot water is a group of 90 or so students, earmarked for poverty, who fell short of the standards.
At the middle school, it was the special needs group that missed the mark. (Incidentally, a study done by the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union found an 80-percent correlation between poverty and special needs. In other words, eight out of 10 students living in poverty also have some sort of special need.)
When school administrators decided to convert to a "swipe card" to pay for lunches, they knew more students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches would sign up for the federal meals program.
That made the "poverty" group big enough for it to qualify for separate status, and thus, tagged as not achieving the standard. Had there been 79 students instead of 90, the test results would not have been flagged for state intervention under the No Child Left Behind law. In fact, they wouldn't have made headlines. (Eighty is the magic number for MAU where students get clumped into the "poverty" group.)
School administrators made the right decision; in the end, students learn better if they're well fed. It's a question of priorities: let's make sure children have enough to eat, then we'll worry about test scores.
That's not to say it's OK that this group of 90 is still missing the mark. School officials know they have to take action - and fast. They don't want any child left behind any more than the federal government does.
But we ask the community to step back and put this flawed law into perspective. Many, many children at the MAU middle and high schools are doing well. Some are not and school leaders know that must change. But as a parent, teacher, taxpayer, business owner, economic development leader, you should be assured it is not disastrous. Far from it.
There are many points of pride in this town and in this school system. Students are going on to high-caliber colleges and universities; they are winning national awards and taking part in interesting and mind-expanding extracurricular activities beyond the athletic fields.
For the Mount Anthony Union School District, and by extension Bennington and its surrounding towns, to break the cycle of failing the have-nots, it will not do to play the blame game any more. Teachers want their students to succeed. Administrators want to lead successful schools. Parents want the best for their children. And the community wants the pride - and economic prosperity - that comes from having award-winning education.
Put another way, school boards, teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, students, community leaders, business owners and taxpayers all share the burden of making this school system work; and by default, making our commuity stronger.
School leaders are taking their steps: juggling class schedules to increase tutoring time, continuing summer school for those who need it, opening the Health and Wellness Center, hiring mentors for at-risk students ... the list goes on.
But what will the rest of us do? Will we continue to carp or can we be expected to demand the best from our youngest citizens - and help them by providing support and resources to meet our challenge.
Do we want Bennington to continue to be known as having among the highest rates in Vermont for teen pregnancy, dropouts, substance abuse, poverty, sexual assault and domestic assault?
Or can we all row the oars in the same direction and let our children know that they - and we - can do better. In fact, we expect it of them and we must start expecting it of ourselves.
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