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NCLB Outrages

NCLB Drains School

One might ask how NCLB aids students.

John Wilhelmi loves the boisterous, multicultural flock of teenagers he oversees as principal of Marshall High School in Portland, Ore., and could not get enough of the high-fives, bearhugs and family celebrations that animated the school's graduation ceremonies last week.

But the No Child Left Behind Act is letting many of these vibrant youngsters slip away from him, he says, and that makes him wonder whether he is going to have much of a chance to help those who are left.

Under the federal law, students in public schools such as Marshall, where academic achievement is below state benchmarks, can transfer to better-performing schools. Despite Marshall's modern brick building, experienced faculty and rising test scores, Wilhelmi says 111 of his incoming ninth-graders -- more than a third of the class -- have decided to shift to other schools, and that number could rise by fall.

"My sense is the number could be staggering," Wilhelmi said. "For every 30 students we lose, we lose a teacher. You lose teachers, and you cut programs. You cut programs, and you attract fewer students. It's a vicious cycle downward."

Oregon was one of the first states to respond to the law's requirement for such a transfer system. Yet the issue is likely to affect many other states and their principals before long, which is one reason many school leaders who support the notion of improving public schools fret about the way No Child Left Behind goes about it.

Wilhelmi, 52, a former government teacher, said he shares the feeling of the White House and Congress that students should have a chance to escape bad schools, but he noted that is not quite what is happening at Marshall. "I am not against choice, but I am against choice based on faulty data and faulty perceptions," he said.

Wilhelmi summed up his feelings in a recent letter to President Bush: "Students on average enter my high school several points beneath the state standard on the 8th-grade statewide assessment test. Students who remain at Marshall and take the test as 10th-graders show an average gain of six points in reading and three points in math.

"Unfortunately, this gain, despite the growth, is still beneath state standards for 10th grade. Remarkably, the highest performing high school in the district also displays, respectively, a six- and three-point average gain in reading and math, but their students begin high school on average above the state bench mark. In other words, both high schools show the same rate of growth between 8th and 10th grade, yet my high school is labeled 'low achieving.' "

The president has not responded, but state and city policymakers are trying to address Wilhelmi's concerns even as Oregon goes through one of its worst funding crises. Portland schools in danger of losing large numbers of teachers because of the federal law have been told that they do not have to cut their staffs in the coming school year. What will happen after that is beyond anyone's power to predict.

In the meantime, Wilhelmi is trying to persuade families and students in his neighborhood that Marshall can do just as good a job as Franklin High, a nearby school with higher average test scores and a popular law and public service program.

He has created academies -- where small cohorts of students stay with the same three teachers -- in ninth and tenth grades for more individual instruction. He's also hired a California research company to help make more improvements. The school's first Advanced Placement courses, in physics, calculus, English, French and possibly art, are scheduled to begin next year.

Marshall's students are a mix of Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, American Indians and European Americans, including the children of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. A state survey released in 2001 found that 78 percent of Marshall's teachers had more than 10 years' experience, compared with 67 percent for the Portland school district as a whole. Two percent of the school's teachers had less than three years' experience, compared with 10 percent in the district.

More than half of the students come from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches, and as there are at many low-income schools, gangs and other dangers exist in the neighborhood. Much of Wilhelmi's effort to reduce the loss of students to other schools comes down to persuading their parents that his campus is safe.

His efforts have not stopped the hemorrhaging of students. This year, he had a senior class of 270, as well as 292 juniors, 273 sophomores and 236 freshmen. The smaller freshman class was the result of 34 students transferring to other schools last year under No Child Left Behind. With the number of transfers increasing, Wilhelmi said, next year's ninth-grade class could have fewer than 200 students.

Wilhelmi is well read in the workings of the U.S. government, and he understands that supporters of the law will see his situation as a perfect example of why No Child Left Behind was a good idea.

The loss of students is helping motivate him and his staff to find ways to strengthen courses and make the school more attractive to parents, which is what the law's framers intended.

Yet in a year in which Portland came close to ending school a month early because of budget cuts, and with teacher reductions threatened after the next school year, Wilhelmi said he is not sure what he will be able to do for the shrinking number of students at Marshall High.

"We can only do good things to the extent that we have the staff to do them," he said. "If we lose staff, then we lose the capacity to do good things."

— Jay Mathews
Rule Aids Students But Drains Some Schools
Washington Post
June 10, 2003


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