Saturday, January 25, 2003

Schools struggle to meet Bush's reforms

Few students taking option of transferring

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One year after a landmark federal education bill was signed by President Bush in Hamilton, public school districts here and nationwide are struggling to meet the law's tough demands.

The law allows students to transfer out of low-performing schools and requires free tutoring to poor students in the lowest-achieving schools.

But to a large extent, that's not happening because many parents say they want their children to stay in their neighborhood school, and only a handful of schools offer the tutoring services.

In Cincinnati, just 50 of some 1,000 eligible students have transferred.

The No Child Left Behind Act, a landmark federal education bill, was signed by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, and has a 12-year implementation process.
The bill's purpose is to promote educational excellence for the nation's 46.8 million public school children, and hold accountable 3 million public school teachers, more than 89,599 public schools and 17,000 local school districts.
The act:
• Creates state academic standards.
• Provides school choice for children in low-performing schools.
• Requires annual testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math.
• Requires schools to show improvement in student achievement or face sanctions.
• Requires a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
In Northern Kentucky, no students have transferred from the district's one federally designated low-achieving school. (Schools are deemed low-performing based on student achievement on state tests.)

Districts are also struggling to find teacher aides who can meet new qualification standards, as required for those hired after January 2002.

"It's easier for them to make decisions in Washington than for them to face the reality of how something like this will be implemented around the country," said Harriet Russell, Cincinnati school board member.

Offering students spaces in successful schools wasn't easy.

"I don't think we were sitting around with vacant seats," she said.

In addition, to supply the federally mandated tutoring services, districts had to wait for state approval of the companies before they could research them and gauge parents' interest. Now they are in the process of securing contracts.

Districts say that guidance on the law has been trickling in too slowly from the federal and state governments over the past year, leaving them scrambling to comply.

The legislation - President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act - seeks to achieve educational excellence for America's 46.8 million public school children.

Schools that don't comply with the law risk losing federal funding, although that has yet to happen. The goal is to avoid cutting funds, according to Daniel Langan, spokesman at the U.S. Department of Education.

But corrective action for low-achieving schools is a surety. For example, schools that don't improve student achievement after two consecutive years face sanctions that include providing parents the option to transfer their children. In districts with the worst performances, students can transfer after one year.

Earlier this month, the White House said the first year of the 12-year implementation process saw predictable resistance from educators.

"Cincinnati and Ohio aren't alone on this," said Eugene Hickok, the U.S. undersecretary of education.

"Part of our interest has been how do we balance an understanding of the challenges of implementing this at the state and local levels with the necessity of making sure the law is upheld," he said. "But the longer we go into the school year, the more the balance is going to shift toward making sure the law is upheld."

Federal officials have begun visiting schools nationwide to highlight effective programs and call attention to those not in compliance.

Among the law's other major tenets:

Requiring annual testing in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 beginning in 2005-06. Testing requirements now vary from state to state.

Placing a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by the end of the 2005-06 school year. This means teachers must be certified or licensed in the subject they teach.

Some of the legislation's requirements have fallen flat this year. In Kentucky, 28 schools were labeled underachieving. Ohio has 161, including 27 in Southwest Ohio (21 in Cincinnati).

As required, those schools offered parents the option to transfer their children to another school but few parents acted on it.

In North College Hill, just three of about 300 eligible students have transferred out of 350-student Becker Elementary.

Springfield Township resident Dianne McBride, whose fourth-grade son, Benjamin, attends Becker, chose to keep her son there.

"I kept Benjamin here because if your child has a problem in an area, they are willing to help you," she said.

Cincinnati sent letters to parents of 1,000 children in low-performing schools, informing them of the transfer option. About 50 students' parents requested transfers. All were accommodated.

"That's a credit to some of the reforms and interventions already going on in Cincinnati Public," said Terry Joyner, the district's chief academic officer.

In Covington, 474 students at Latonia Elementary were eligible to transfer but no parents exercised their option.

School officials say the disinterest in school choice is a credit to the progress and efforts their teachers and staff are making, as well as the confidence parents have in their children's schools.

David Horine, superintendent of Mount Healthy schools, said just a few parents - he wasn't sure how many - inquired and took advantage of the "school choice" option.

Tutoring services lag

Most school districts that were required to offer tutoring services have not. Cincinnati Public does not offer tutoring services, but the district plans to send up to 2,800 letters next week to inform parents of eligible students about services they plan to offer.

Becker Elementary began tutoring services Tuesday for 30 of 200 eligible students. The cost, $1,145 per child, will be paid through federal funds.

When explaining the lack of transfers or tutoring services, some districts said the 670-page legislation itself was too convoluted. Others said the legislation's requirements went into effect too soon after the bill's signing.

The Ohio Department of Education first approved a list of tutoring service providers for Cincinnati in late November, three months into the school year. Cincinnati and other districts across the state say they have been furiously preparing notices to send to parents about the services.

"We've just had that list for a couple weeks now," said Karen Ingraham, spokeswoman for Akron Schools. She said tutoring services will be in place before the end of the school year.

Ohio officials said the state-approved list of tutoring providers came late because they needed to research the providers, which include private tutoring companies such as Sylvan Learning Center.

Federal officials concede that the first year has been a learning year. President Bush recently praised Ohio for its plan on how to implement No Child Left Behind and approved it before the Jan. 31 deadline.

"If Ohio has got (tutoring) services being administered in January, that's not a bad thing," Mr. Hickok said. "I'm more concerned about those states who have refused to even begin that process.''

Officials say the impact of the law will be more apparent in years to come. For example, schools that are persistently low-achieving will have to be overhauled.

While educators say they appreciate the intent of the legislation, they say the federal government isn't offering enough funding to cover the law's extensive requirements.

For example, all teacher aides hired as of January 2002 who help with instruction must now have an associate's degree, two years of college or take a test to show they are qualified.

Previously, only a high school diploma was required.

That requirement troubles officials in Mount Healthy, which has 46 instructional assistants. Some help teachers by monitoring students in the classroom. Others maintain the elementary libraries. Finding degreed people to fill those positions - which start at a salary of around $12,500 - is proving difficult.

In Cincinnati, the district is required to devote up to 20 percent of its federal Title I resources - money geared toward improving achievement for poor students - to meeting the demands of the legislation.

But the district's Title I funds increased just 6 percent this year, from $18.3 million to $19.5 million. That's after a decrease in Title I funds every year since 2000.

Steve Forde, spokesman for Ohio Rep. John Boehner, a key architect of the education legislation, said President Bush has proposed a $1 billion increase in Title I funds for disadvantaged students for fiscal years 2003 and 2004.

"Under the first two years of President Bush's presidency, we will have seen greater increases in Title I funding than in the previous seven years combined under President Clinton," Mr. Forde said.

Despite the complaints, districts are taking exceptional steps to improve their students' achievement.

Cincinnati mailed booklets of new state standards to every parent or guardian in the 41,200-student district to help them understand what their children must learn.

At Becker Elementary, fourth- and sixth-graders were offered the opportunity to stay after school for 1 hours Monday through Thursday in January and February. About 100 of 150 eligible students are staying after, said Principal Mary Senter.

Ten-year-old Daniel Jarmon, who recently learned about narrative and informational writing during an after-school session, said he doesn't mind staying late.

"I think it's fun," he said. "The stuff I learn in here might be on the proficiency test and that might help me a lot."


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