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Is This What Failure Looks Like?

How NCLB Gets it All Wrong.


By Alain Jehlen and Mary Ellen Flannery

If the staff of the Frank M. Tejeda Academy in San Antonio had a motto, it might well be "No Child Left Behind." And because of that, the federal law of the same name is punishing them.

Tejeda only takes students who can't make it in a regular school. It's the district's safety net, offering individual attention, help with day care for young mothers, and an endless supply of second chances: No matter how many times a student fails, if the student really wants to try again, Tejeda will take him or her back.

A school like that can't pass muster with the No Child Behind law (NCLB) as it stands today.

Tejeda and the three other schools in this series are unusual. But most public schools have some number ofstudents like theirs, students who face serious obstacles to becoming educated, productive adults.

 No Child Left Behind makes these students a dangerous burden threatening to sink the whole school. And the law automatically keeps raising the bar, making success harder and harder to achieve.

The latest NEA compilation shows one out of every four schools was unable to meet "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) last year, and one in seven was in "improvement" or "corrective action," which makes them subject to punishment if they receive federal Title I funds.

With NCLB up for renewal, educators are telling Congress to change the law. See page 37 to find out what you can do.

Schools like the five in this report deserve gold stars, not F's.

Frank M. Tejada Academy (San Antonio, Texas)
Fairview Elementary (Washington D.C.)
Napa High School (Napa, California)
PS 48 (New York, New York)
Broadway High School (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Second Chance High

America is supposed to be the land of second chances. If you make a mess of your life, but then turn around and pull yourself together, you can still make it in America—at least, we like to think so.

In that sense, the Frank M. Tejeda Academy in San Antonio is the all-American school. It's designed specifically for kids who didn't make it in the regular high school, but want to try again.

Take Mary, for example. She started at a regular high school in 2000 and at first did well, but she got pregnant as a junior and dropped out. Two years later, she showed up at Tejeda, now with two small children, but fortunately with her husband's encouragement. From December 2005 to May 2006, Mary mastered two major English courses, U.S. history, economics, government, and a demanding computer course. She earned her diploma and applied to college, on her way to becoming a nurse.

A success story, right?

Not if you're the federal No Child Left Behind law. Mary didn't graduate in four years, so as far as the law is concerned, Tejeda failed with her.

If Tejeda had refused to admit her, Mary would have failed but the school would have looked better to NCLB. Because Tejeda takes students like Mary, she could succeed, but the school failed.

"This school is for kids who can't graduate in four years," says Principal Patricia Ramirez, an NEA member. "Students who can graduate on time should go to a regular high school, which can offer so many more academic programs."

Which means her school will never pass the NCLB graduation standard.

Tejeda has flunked AYP three years so far. Next year, it's supposed to plan for a drastic overhaul or for closure, which would quite literally leave its 150–200 students behind.

But the school district has a better idea. Kathy Bruck, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction, says they will give up Tejeda's federal Title I dollars and replace them with local revenues. "It's a matter of doing the right thing for the students," says Bruck.

Tejeda is all about tailoring the education to the students, who are admitted to the school every Monday. They make progress—sometimes slowly, sometimes very fast—by completing "contracts" that amount to learning projects in each subject.

Algebra teacher Clay Huckins designs lessons to pull students in, like figuring out the path of a basketball shot into a hoop. Last year, some of his students flunked the state test—a heart-breaking surprise to him. "I would have bet my paycheck that they'd pass—they knew the material—but there was something about the testing situation." After a brief summer test-prep course, most did pass.

Of course, not everyone makes it at Tejeda. Last year, Huckins taught a student from a low-income, fatherless home who had flunked out of a regular high school. It was difficult to engage this boy, but Huckins stayed with him. Gradually, the boy built up momentum, until he was speeding through algebra much faster than most regular high school students would. "He's very smart, and he finished one contract after another," says Huckins. He passed the state algebra exit exam on his first try.

But this year, the boy stopped working and finally dropped out again; Huckins doesn't know why. If that boy comes back, he'll get a second chance, and a third, and a fourth if necessary.

Because no child is left behind at Tejeda. And thanks to a far-sighted district, the school won't be, either.

When the boy made progress, Huckins called his mother to give her good news.

The Day the Music Died?

There are some pointy-headed people in Washington, D.C., (but not at NEA!) who think the worth of a school can be measured by its test scores. OK, fine. Let's show them the numbers for Fairview Elementary, a small school with big ambition, in Bloomington, Indiana.

In 2003, just 39 percent of Fairview's students passed language arts and a paltry 35 percent passed in math. But, by last year, the passing rate had grown to 60 and 59 percent, respectively. For non-special ed students alone, it was 72 percent.

You know it didn't come easy, right? This is a school where kids are so poor that teachers pack their bookbags with food on Fridays. This is a school where students trot to class from the homeless shelter down the street. (These are not excuses. They are obstacles.)

It can be a heart-wrenching place to work—and not least of all because, despite its amazing growth, Fairview still wore a scarlet F last year! It failed to meet special education attendance standards by 8/100ths of a point. "To make so many changes and so much progress and still not make it…" muses instructional coach Chris Freeman, "It was a downer."

Now, after four consecutive years of failing to meet NCLB standards, the school must plan to restructure. One proposed "solution"? Simply shutting Fairview's doors. It is, after all, serving just 250 students in an aging, handicapped-inaccessible building—and it might just be easier to move on.

But would it be better? Look inside Kathy Heise's music classroom for the answer. Heise, who has degrees in music and literacy, doesn't just teach her students to read music. She teaches them to read, period. With her younger kids, she looks at song lyrics. Where musicians find rhymes, she finds lessons in phonemic awareness. With slightly older kids, musical rhythms can be used to highlight syllables. "Metered poetry, you could call it," she says.

Some of her older students actually write in her class, answering such open-ended prompts as: "If you could create a new recipe for your favorite musician, what would it be and why?" They also learn algebraic skills when they tackle mixed-meter music. And all of these lessons are coordinated with classroom teachers, as well as state standards, so that Heise knows she's singing the right tune.

Heise previously worked specifically with English Language Learners, and she found they quickly grasped language through music. It's also a particularly effective strategy with poor children. "It opens up new ways to make connections. It just turns the key a little bit," she says.

Fairview's greatest gains have been in language arts—and the teachers have done it without drill-and-kill tactics. Freeman, the instructional coach, works with teachers and students on Readers and Writers Workshops designed to give students "time to ponder, to really read, and think about what they're reading," she says.

"As the poverty level rises, I think it's just astonishing that we've made so much progress," Freeman says. "Unfortunately, because of AYP, all you'll ever hear is the negative."

Trouble at 'The Statue of Liberty'

"This school is the Statue of Liberty," says English teacher Cindy Watter about Napa High School, in the wine country 30 miles north of San Francisco. "We get students from all sorts of demographics, and we specialize in new immigrants." Napa is a 2005 "California Distinguished School," a distinction shared by about 1 in 20 of the state's schools. Napa also has award-winning music, dance, and journalism programs.

But for the past three years, Napa High's English Language Learners (ELLs) haven't passed the state English test, and that puts the whole school in "Program Improvement" under No Child Left Behind. The school passed in every other NCLB category.

Napa revamped its ELL program four years ago, with a new curriculum and schedule, and became a model that other schools tried to emulate. But the following year, says ELL teacher Katy Howard, the standard got tougher (NCLB requires periodic jumps in pass rates) and Napa started failing.

Why can't the ELL students pass? "They're tested too early," says Howard. "They're tested the minute they arrive."

"It's like, 'Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos! Now take this test,'" says Watter.

What's more, Howard says most of the new immigrants come from rural areas of Mexico where schooling is sporadic. "Probably 60 percent of my students are not even proficient in Spanish," she says.

Under "Program Improvement," even though it's only the ELL students who haven't met the standard, Napa High scrapped its literature program for lower level 9th- and 10th-grade native speakers. That's not all bad, says English teacher Sarah Villegas, who teaches bottom level readers. She was given a very elementary reading program to use, and it works.

"I've seen tremendous growth, not just in the test data but in the smiles on kids' faces when they complete their first book. Some of these kids never thought of graduating from high school before."

The program harps on reading mechanics, but Villegas' students also have 20 minutes every day to read for pleasure, with books written at reading levels as low as second grade, but with high school-appropriate content.

Students with slightly better reading ability get a different program, also new to Napa High, built around an anthology of book excerpts and short stories. It's a text so geared to the state test that the standards are printed right in the margins so students know what the state expects them to "achieve" on every page: "Identify story elements like plot and characters," and so on. Villegas says that both teachers and students feel this program is not about reading for pleasure or for enlightenment, just higher scores.

English teachers were told to attend long workshops with consultants on how to teach the new program. Cindy Watter refused: "I'd rather have chemotherapy than attend another meeting with them," says this two-time cancer survivor.

Watter insists on the value of teaching complete novels like The Scarlet Letter. "If I say, 'ignominious' and define it, and act it out, and draw a picture—they won't learn what it means," she explains. "But in chapter 6 of The Scarlet Letter, they get it."

She muses that perhaps it's all some sort of trick: "Maybe by forbidding literature, they figure they'll get the students to run around embracing books."

But it's no trick and worse is coming. This year, under NCLB, the percentage of students scoring "proficient" must go up again. If Napa's immigrants keep not passing, in three years the school must be "reconstituted," which could mean replacing the staff or closing Napa High, no matter how distinguished.

Students at the school speak 10 languages.

'The Best School in the Universe'

The South Bronx may be America's most infamous blighted urban area, but at the tip of the South Bronx there's a big elementary school with the pluck to call itself "the best school in the universe."

That's not an empty boast for PS 48. With virtually 100 percent low-income, minority students, this school has been among the top scorers in the Bronx, beating out much wealthier schools on the state test; so even by the measure Washington insists on, PS 48 is a standout.

What's more, teachers say, PS 48 achieves success in a very unusual way. Many urban schools have adopted rigidly structured drills to push up scores, but PS 48 is heading in the opposite direction: toward student-centered, individual, and small group instruction.

"In my room," says fifth-grade teacher Sandra Zadrima, "I want children exploring, analyzing literature, teaching each other, and having fun." And most of the time, Zadrima achieves that goal, with a lot of help from her colleagues.

The school culture encourages collaboration. "We take the best of what each teacher has and combine it," says special education teacher Celia Abuin. "You need help? Teachers will come in and demonstrate a lesson for you." There's a full-time staff developer for each grade in this 1,000-student, K–5 school, plus two teaching consultants imported from Australia.

The results are impressive. Reporters for the PBS NewsHour and the New York Times have visited PS 48 and sent back glowing reports.

But the standardized tests that start in grade three do exact their pound of flesh. Most of the year, Zadrima devotes one period in the seven-period day to test prep, which jumps to three periods as testing approaches. And despite her efforts to make test prep fun, says Zadrima, "Sometimes, I bore them to death."

She has a triple job: to spark a love of learning; to impart the fine art of psyching out multiple-choice questions; and for some children from chaotic homes, to be an extra Mom—which is what some of these fifth-graders accidentally call her.

But NCLB doesn't recognize the extraordinary challenges or the quality of this staff's effort, nor does it see the high overall test scores. All that matters for federal accountability purposes is that the school's special education students have flunked the test four times: Now PS 48 is on the ropes.

"For some of my students, who are close to passing, the extra push is good," says Abuin, who teaches some of those special education students. "But for others, the test is total frustration. They break down. Some refuse to take it. Some just bubble."

Because PS 48 keeps failing, the school must send parents letters informing them of their right to transfer their students to other schools that are passing AYP. Last year, about 30 families did that.

"It kills me," says Principal Roxanne Cardona. "The parents don't understand. Some of the children are going to schools that actually have lower scores than we do, but those schools are smaller, and have fewer than 30 special education students." Under NCLB, each subgroup of students must pass if it meets the minimum number of students, and in New York, that number is 30.

What will happen to PS 48 if NCLB isn't changed? Cardona has a prediction: "They'll chop our school into five mini-schools," she says. That won't boost scores, but each of the mini-schools will have fewer than 30 special education students, whose scores will be averaged in with other students, allowing each of the mini-schools to pass.

The likely benefit to students of this "reform"? None.

A Failing School That's Saving Two Generations

At just three years old, Jonathan is a bit too young for high school, but the teachers at Broadway High in Minneapolis are working hard to make sure he won’t be left behind. Most days, at 10 am, you can find Jonathan with his mom in the school’s childcare center, which is packed at that hour with babies, preschool teachers, high school teachers, and the teenage mothers who make up the student body of this alternative high school.

The mothers are playing with their children and saying goodbye before heading off to class. Later, they’ll get detailed feedback from the professionals on how they can improve the quality of that crucial mother-child communication.

This month, some of the mothers are starting a new program in which they will watch videotapes of their interactions with their children. Among other things, each mother will count how many words she speaks to her child. On average, low-income mothers talk much less with their babies and children than wealthier mothers, and many experts believe that’s one big reason why their children often start kindergarten far behind their richer age-mates. If that explanation is correct, the Broadway tots will have a leg up.

By providing a quality education for children like Jonathan, Broadway lets their mothers focus on earning high school diplomas. They can even turn young motherhood to their advantage by getting college credit for their child-care training through Minneapolis Community and Technical College. By the time they graduate from high school, students can earn enough credits to qualify for assistant teacher jobs in day-care centers.

Plus, they’ve learned to be better moms.

With its sophisticated program for teenage mothers, Broadway is educating two generations of at-risk children at once, helping them become productive, self-reliant adults.

But what credit does Broadway get for its good work from the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law?

None. In fact, less than none. By helping these young women try to lift themselves off the floor of society, Broadway has guaranteed its own failure under the federal law.

“They are a ‘failing’ school because they have always welcomed this population of students,” says Sarah Snapp, who’s in charge of the federal Title I program for the Minneapolis schools.

Broadway has failed four times, and fully expects to repeat this year. That means next year, it is supposed to prepare for “restructuring,” such as replacing the staff, even though the school is a pioneer in dropout prevention. 

Make that dropout recovery rather than prevention. Most of these girls have already dropped out, helping to spoil some other high school’s record under federal accountability rules. Broadway reels them back in, where they stand a very good chance of being counted against the Minneapolis Public Schools in federal statistics for a second time. That’s because these students are less likely than others to score proficient, less likely to have 95 percent attendance for the state test, and very unlikely to graduate in four years. About 70 percent of the students are already 18 or older.

District leaders, however, insist they’re not going to ditch this school. “They do an amazing job of keeping kids connected,” says Snapp.

That’s what science teacher Jennifer Alton loves about Broadway High: the chance to connect with kids in trouble. A former University of Minnesota horticultural scientist, Alton found high school teaching much more satisfying than working in labs, and Broadway much more satisfying than other schools. “In other settings, I had so many students that I couldn’t take the time to work with one who was lashing out. In a class of 32, you can’t. With 16 or 17, you can.” Actually, her class list is much higher, but on any given day, many of her students are absent.

The low attendance, according to special education teacher Kathryn Kindle, is partly because of illness. “They’re sick, their children are sick—it’s amazing how much school is missed because of health-related issues,” she says.

Before coming to Broadway, Kindle’s job for the school system was to go into the community and help students and their families work out school-related problems. But most regular high schools, she found, had trouble being flexible enough to accommodate the students she was trying to help. Broadway is different. “Our students are so individualized,” she says. “Their path through life is not straight. It’s very windy.” And Broadway can stay with them on that journey.

Some students come, and leave, and come back again. And eventually, many of them make it into a position of stability. One of Kindle’s girls got an internship with a Minneapolis newspaper, did well there, and is slated for a $16-an-hour job after she graduates this year. This is a special education student with problems at home who struggled for a long time at Broadway before finally getting it together.

But No Child Left Behind doesn’t celebrate winding paths, only straight ones. It doesn’t make allowances for young moms whose children are sick, or students who can’t pass the geometry test because they came to high school not knowing arithmetic.

Like San Antonio ’s Tejeda Academy, Broadway High will never meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind precisely because it refuses to leave any child behind.

Unless the law is changed.

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