Stigmatized: Clark Elementary's failing grade

As trendy a neighborhood as Belmont seems to be, one thing gives parents who can afford its increasingly high real estate prices pause: Clark Elementary School.

Even before the No Child Left Behind Act decreed Clark's academic progress unsatisfactory and ordered that students be given the option of transferring to another city school, some parents had already made that choice– by opting to go private.

Now the Clark community is grappling with the stigma of failure the federal program has visited upon the school, and deciding whether to defend it– or bail.

Principal Art Stow does not expect a mass exodus. "I sense parents believe in the school and know we believe in the children," he says. And he thinks the school's small size may be partly to blame for its predicament.

No Child Left Behind uses SOL scores to determine progress, and Clark's third grade class that took the SOLs this year was an anomaly with only 35 students. That means only a handful of children needed to fail in order to bring the whole school down.

"Had four more students passed the test in English, we'd have passed," says Stow.

"It's very complicated," says Barbara Myer, Clark Parent Teacher Organization president. "First there are the federal government mandates and then the SOLs mandated by the state, and it ends up on the shoulder of eight-year-old children... I really loathe the whole thing."

"I really think it's disappointing for any school to have to go through this process because of this federally mandated program," says city school official Bobby Thompson.

Information on the school choice option was mailed to Clark parents July 7; they had to decide by July 21 whether they were switching schools. The irony is that a parent's choice of another school is not guaranteed; priority goes to the lowest-achieving students from low-income families.

Those are the students community activist Joy Johnson thinks are least likely to leave Clark, because it's a neighborhood school and because the student-teacher ratios are so low.

Johnson calls for bringing in the resources to help students pass rather than offering the option for them to go somewhere else. And she adds to the denunciations: "No Child Left Behind is a stupid law. It's not putting in the resources to make a child excel."

Myer does predict that some parents will move their children: those who aren't currently registered at Clark who want their children bused to another school.

Lindsay Howerton is weighing that option. She lives across the street from Clark, but until this year, her children have gone to Waldorf.

She checked out Clark when she moved to Belmont three years ago. Its focus on children struggling with basic literacy made her feel literature wasn't a priority.

"The kids of all my friends who live in Belmont go to private schools," she says. "My neighbors say, my kid needs art class or foreign language."

Howerton says she can no longer afford private school. And as a single mom who owns her own home, she knows it's neighbors like her who are more educated or more affluent who may be contributing to the disproportionately high number of low-income students at Clark.

"We all blame ourselves," she admits. "We say if we all [enroll at Clark] at once..." But she also concedes that before the choice program was available, she was considering home schooling or even selling her house and renting an apartment in Venable district to avoid sending her children to Clark full time.

The No Child Left Behind Act's taking Clark to the woodshed may have hurt the people it was intended to help. Myer went to an informational meeting at Friendship Court, and she says some attendees don't like the publicity that spotlighted them because they don't have much money.

She describes a moment at the meeting that brought tears to her eyes. "A parent said her child was being teased for going to Clark. The stress ends up coming out on eight year olds. I'd like it better to keep the stress on the grownups," she says.

As a Title 1 school, Clark Elementary has the lowest student-teacher ratio in town– and the largest percentage of low-income students. Now the federal No Child Left Behind program says Clark students can go to another school.


Chloe Cook and Anwyn Cook live across the street from Clark, but their mother, Lindsay Howerton, isn't sure the school is the best match for her daughters' educational needs.