No Child? Who will be left behind?

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM

One sunny day last spring, Belmont resident Veronica Walker stopped outside Clark Elementary to show the crossing guard her new baby. It was a rare visit to the neighborhood school now that her son, Arquis, was no longer enrolled there. Almost a year had passed since she and the parents of 28 other Clark students opted to send their children to different city schools, from Johnson to Greenbrier.

Inside Clark, once known as "the school on the hill" for its towering perch over Monticello Avenue, instructional assistant Dawn Bryant was tutoring children for the upcoming Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. When offered school choice for her daughter, then in second grade at Clark, Bryant was among the parents who opted to stay.

Today both mothers say they're satisfied with their decisions, but– like countless others who want the best education for their kids– Walker and Bryant think the public school system, with its federal testing requirements, has never been more difficult to navigate.

 

Tough love or tough luck?

 In July 2004, while families planned picnics and pool parties, fireworks were already sizzling in the City schools. The results were in: four Clark third graders had failed the SOLS by a small but decisive margin, the second consecutive year the school missed the mark on Virginia's standardized exams, which are mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. This time, a sanction kicked in. Now Clark would have to offer parents school choice and pay to transport children to the new schools.

Parents began reviewing their options.

For Walker, who had previously tried unsuccessfully to switch Arquis to a different school, it was an easy choice. She chose Johnson Elementary, a school that narrowly escaped being added to the government's watch-list, but one she considers "excellent," if not equal to the private academy her son previously attended. Says the single mother of three, "I would move before sending him back to Clark."

This year's SOL results, however, show Clark's scores are trending upward. The school has gone from a 50 percent pass rate on the English test last year to 70 percent this year. Gains were reported on the math test as well.

But whether Clark made the required "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) is unclear. Its official status for the 2004-2005 school year is listed as "to be determined."

Harley Miles, city schools supervisor of testing, says that the district is now "gathering evidence" to show that, looking at a three-year average, Clark has made steady progress. The state will then review the information, taking into account the school's small testing population, and make a determination.

City schools that did not make AYP this year are Charlottesville High, Buford Middle, and Walker Upper Elementary, all of which missed their SOL test score targets for the second year in a row.

But parents of these students won't be receiving letters offering school choice. No sanctions are levied against them, because only schools that receive federal Title I funding are penalized for not making AYP.

Schools receiving Title I funds– and penalties– also contain the most economically disadvantaged students.

 

A simmering debate

 At the center of the simmering debate ignited by No Child, one that encompasses the entire city school district, are parents and children, black and white, from Belmont to Greenbrier. They're people who share the same neighborhoods but are at opposite ends of an educational achievement gap that exists nationwide. They include mothers like Walker and Bryant.

Walker is black, Bryant is white, facts that take on new meaning under No Child, which considers their children's test scores by categories and shows a strong correlation between the achievement gap and socioeconomic status and race.

The city's Miles says the district tests students in seven different sub-groups (African-Americans are one), each of which is required to raise its test scores yearly. For each group, says Miles, there are several different benchmarks in English and math, and should one group of test-takers miss the mark, the school is judged to have failed to make AYP.

Last year's school board called raising scores and achievement for black students "a moral imperative." The local head of the NAACP, Rick Turner, put it more dramatically. "Black kids are dying," he said.

This is no longer the familiar debate about public education and low standards. For the first time since 1966– when city schools faced the last challenge over desegregation concerning the location of a junior high school– race is a central topic. While whites make up the majority of city residents, in the schools they're in the minority.

Yet– according to a Phi Delta Kappa curriculum audit conducted in September 2004– white students are better served. The professional education association's 155-page audit (subsequently thrown out by the current school administration) said that change "cannot come too quickly" for Charlottesville's minority students. It must happen "in the months, not years, to come" even though "some would like to wait."

The strongly worded critique of the division advocated dramatic changes, exactly the kind then-new superintendent Scottie Griffin was accused of making, using the requirements of the No Child legislation as her justification.

From September 12 to 15, the auditors scoured reams of data provided by the school board, interviewed school personnel and community members, visited each one of the nine city schools, and claimed to have observed 299 active classrooms.

To place the achievement gap in context, the auditors roused the ghosts of Charlottesville's racial conflicts dating back to Reconstruction. On their mission, the team discovered "vestiges of that battle in numerous forms"– nowhere more pronounced than in the brightly decorated halls of the city schools.

Griffin, the district's first African-American superintendent, seemed a sure bet in some quarters to close the yawning achievement gap between black and white students. But her policies sparked a stormy year in which angry parents hurled insults at the school board and floated plans for a charter school, and dozens of the best teachers and principals threatened to leave. Even one of Griffin's own hires, assistant superintendent Laura Purnell, criticized Griffin, who was ultimately forced to resign with a $291,000 severance payment.

Turner considered the brouhaha to be blatant evidence of entrenched racism. Little discussion focused on the local impact of No Child, which is a reauthorization of Lyndon Johnson's landmark Elementary and Secondary Schools Education Act of 1965– also called the "education phase of the war on poverty."

No Child pledges to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds. But it makes no attempt to solve the problem of economic inequities that plague school districts.

Instead, it raises the bar for all children.

 

A Controversial Law

 By the time the yellow buses resumed their routes along Monticello Avenue in September 2004, school officials had pinned their hopes for closing the achievement gap on Griffin. But today, with Griffin gone and a new superintendent search under way, the district appears no closer to a solution.

Yet the pressure to raise scores remains.

No Child's strict decree that schools meet a host of test score benchmarks annually aims for a 100 percent pass rate on the SOLS by 2014. Virginia sets its own target for achieving AYP, but every year the pass rate must rise to meet the deadline. Many consider the law's goals unaffordable, if not unattainable.

Ever since George Bush signed the No Child act in 2002, a growing number of states have declared it an unfunded mandate, and recently the National Education Association– the nation's largest teachers' union– sued the federal government for failing to provide adequate monies. Districts in three states have opted out of the law altogether, including Utah, widely seen as a Bush bastion. Nine states have issued reports that detail the negative impact federal testing requirements and sanctions have had on their education systems. On August 22, Connecticut became the first state to actually sue the federal government over No Child.

Virginia is considered among several states that will make up the "next wave of rebellion," according to a June 2005 report by the Massachusetts-based consortium Mass Partners for Public Schools. The report predicts that by 2014– the government's deadline for achieving 100 percent proficiency– 75-90 percent of Massachusetts schools will be deemed failing under NCLB, even though that state's students perform in the top tier on the SAT and other national tests.

The report also claims that 47 states are now questioning or challenging the law. Like Utah, one way they're doing so is by opting out. But in snubbing No Child in favor of their own accountability measures, states risk losing federal funding– in Utah's case, about $76 million.

Even with Virginia's growing resistance to No Child, however, the state is unlikely to turn down the government's contribution in the wake of today's uncertain economic picture. While the share of federal dollars is small, Virginia is already near the bottom in education spending, ranked 43 in the nation.

The funding debate over No Child is exacerbated by what states consider an overly complex, unyielding law. Virginia's Department of Education has made 13 separate requests to the federal government seeking greater flexibility in implementing No Child's requirements, which they say conflict with the state's own successful reforms. While four of those requests have been approved, five were denied, and the others have yet to be considered.

Parents oppose the law mainly for its intense focus on testing.

Bryant says that was the impetus for the proposal for a new public charter school for underachievers. While students in the school would still be required to take the SOLs, administrators could choose not to implement additional tests like the Flanagans. Purchased by the school district last year to boost SOL scores at a cost of $50,000, the Flanagan tests angered many parents, who Bryant says have grown weary of the testing regime. This year, the new administration dropped the Flanagan and resumed use of PALS, a literacy test.

Walker is no more enthusiastic about the focus on standardized tests, but she believes there is "one good thing" to come from No Child: school choice. Walker had grown increasingly frustrated by the district's practice of assigning kids to the school closest to their home.

Critics suspect school choice was a hidden agenda of the Act all along.

President Bush's signature legislation initially included vouchers that would allow parents of children attending schools labeled "failing" (a steadily growing list) to switch to private schools. Democrats blasted the provision in the bipartisan bill, calling it a backdoor attempt to privatize education. Ultimately, the voucher option was shot down, though the debate hasn't died.

 

Punishing the poor?

 While No Child was meant to hold schools accountable for their under-achieving students, many critics charge that poorer schools shoulder the greatest burden.

As a teaching assistant and parent, Bryant believes Clark– where three-quarters of the students are economically disadvantaged– has made great strides, yet has been unfairly pigeonholed by SOL scores. Bryant says she never considered opting out when her daughter entered third grade. She attributes her decision to the school's "loving, caring atmosphere," epitomized by former principal Art Stow and assistant principal Denise Pilgrim, who daily greeted some 263 kids at the bus by name.

Bryant considers No Child "extremely unfair to kids who start school with a deficit."

And state data indicates that the Charlottesville city schools serve a disproportionately high number of poor children. Many are "very bright," says Monticello Area Community Action Agency teacher Mona Berry, but they need the "bridge" she helps provide through MACAA's "Parents in Education" and other non-profit programs in the schools. Often, says Berry, "kindergarten is their preschool."

For parents like Walker and Bryant, whose kids are high academic achievers, that fact presents certain challenges.

Walker took her son out of Clark because she feels "It doesn't challenge the kids." A single mother, Walker lives nearby and would like to send her son to the neighborhood school, but she says she "wasn't satisfied with Arquis's achievement. The school would send home progress reports saying he couldn't do this or that, but I knew it wasn't true." It's not intentional, Walker says, "but they start stereotyping." The problem, she thinks, is a curriculum that's "based on the overall background of the children."

Bryant believes poverty has contributed to low parental involvement– one indicator of academic success– at Clark, where school data reveals that 75 percent of students come from single-parent households.

Recalling the four years her children were enrolled at the county's Greer Elementary, Bryant cites the "big difference" between the city and the more affluent county schools. Parent involvement is the rule in the county, Bryant says, where parents have "a different agenda." When Bryant joined the Clark PTO, she says, "There were only about six people." At Clark, she says, the Book Fair is run by the librarian, while at Greer, parents run the show, a big moneymaker for the school.

"Not that they don't want to be involved," she says, "but I can see that parents have other things on their minds."

Those "other things" are often second and third work shifts, says low-income activist Joy Johnson, who also makes this observation about low African-American turnout at school board meetings: "My people don't go to those fiascoes; they're not represented."

Johnson's is exactly the sort of alienation new Clark principal James Pierce hopes to reverse. "In our community, we have a different reality," he says. "Sometimes support means making sure your child has a place to study, a meal at night, and love from someone at home."

And if you're the principal of a small school that serves many poor children, it can also mean knocking on doors.

Pierce is continuing Clark's tradition of personal attention "on foot." Pierce said during the summer that he was going door to door to meet every Clark parent because "the home-school connection is important."

Walker and Bryant agree that parents strongly influence children's school performance. But they also believe schools like Clark could do a better job erasing the achievement gap given more federal support– not penalties.

"Can there be funding to help these kids out?" Walker asks.

Pierce says he knows the name of every child who didn't pass the SOLS, "and there are remedial services in place for them."

Outside its federally mandated "three-year improvement program," Clark has received a non-federally sponsored grant to offer enrichment programs including a range of after school clubs from Spanish to drama.

But, while such programs may benefit disadvantaged children, the federal government doesn't pay for them, nor does it reimburse Title I schools for the costs imposed by sanctions. Transportation for the children who opted out of Clark cost the city $40,000 last year.

 

Apples and oranges

 Comparing county and city schools is like comparing apples and oranges. While only 3.1 percent of the county's Meriwether Lewis Elementary students are economically disadvantaged, 75.4 percent of Clark's students are poor, and nearly as many come from single-parent households. Some qualify as homeless.

Yet it was Clark, not Meriwether, that faced economic penalties under NCLB. And it was Meriwether, which draws from affluent Ivy-area subdivisions, that performed best on SOLs last year.

Meriwether's 2004 SOL reading and math scores were 90 percent and 88 percent respectively. Clark's: 47.1 and 70.2 percent.

Wealthier districts, with their higher property tax base, can better afford the costs of success: higher teacher salaries and training programs, newer materials and equipment, more field trips, and so on.

Combine the county and city schools in order of economic advantage and it's clear– overall, the fewer poor students, the better the test scores. The top SOL scores cluster among the more affluent county schools while the lower scores clog the bottom end of the economic scale, where most of the city schools are found.

After Meriwether-Lewis, the school with the fewest number of disadvantaged students is Virginia Murray Elementary. Its enrollment of poor students is only 4.7 percent. Murray's 2004 reading and math scores were 89.1 percent and 95.6 percent respectively– well above any city school's best scores.

And within the city schools, the top performer, Venable Elementary, has the fewest economically disadvantaged and special education students.

Some districts naturally do better as a result of the way No Child looks at test scores by student category. Where the percentage of students in a particular group– say, economically disadvantaged– is too low for statistical accuracy, the group's scores aren't counted. Conversely, the more sub-categories of students a school has, the more difficult it is to achieve passing scores in all groups.

Where schools face greater obstacles due to large numbers of sub-groups, education researchers have coined the moniker "diversity penalty."

Johnson Elementary, which Walker's son now attends, has a diverse student body– and barely escaped the government's watch-list last year.

While a giant banner in the hall proclaims "Our Children Come From All Over the World," under No Child, that might not be something to celebrate.

But as Miles observes, the 1,000-page legislation could also shed some light. One good thing about the law, he says, is that economically disadvantaged students "can no longer be ignored."


Veronica Walker opted out of Clark in favor of sending her son to Johnson.


Dawn Bryant says Clark has gotten a bad rap. She chose to keep her daughter there, even when given the option to bus him to a higher performing city school. [This caption was incorrect in the print version but has been corrected for the on-line version.]


New Clark School principal James Pierce is going door to door to meet every Clark family.


Nearly 75 percent of Clark's students come from low-income families.


Former Clark Principal Art Stow was known for greeting every child in the school by name.


Among city schools, Venable has the highest test scores– and the fewest number of underprivileged and students.