Bypass Fail

No Child Left Behind was supposed to shut down or "restructure" failing schools. A Seattle middle school shows that's largely an empty threat.

Ever since President Bush enacted No Child Left Behind, the controversial education reform act of 2002, a dire fate was said to await failing schools. After six consecutive years of failing to achieve prescribed target scores on standardized tests--in our case, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL)--schools that receive federal Title I funds are required to be restructured, something generally understood as a cataclysmic event."My belief is that they would basically shut a school down, lay off the staff, and hire new staff," says Scott Anstett, an art teacher at Aki Kurose Middle School, one of two South Seattle schools which, according to federal guidelines, is supposed to restructure this year. The idea, says Jack Jennings, president of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., is to "hold educators' feet to the fire and bring about major changes."Turns out restructuring needn't be so drastic. In fact, it can happen without most people realizing it.Last month at a Seattle Public School Board meeting to discuss school closures, Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson put the African American Academy, the other school due for restructuring, on her list of closure recommendations (the board will vote on final recommendations on Jan. 29). But as for Aki Kurose, Carla Santorno, the district's chief academic officer, said that she believes improvements already made there "count" as restructuring. Santorno ticked off a list of changes, including the hiring of a new principal and the transition to an extended school day—changes much less dramatic than the wholesale replacement of teachers or the dissolution of the school as it is known."It was not the answer I was expecting," says board member Steve Sundquist. "I certainly know we have made a number of changes at Aki Kurose. I'm not sure whether it is all of what we need." Sundquist acknowledges, however, that what's already been done may satisfy the feds. "As I understand it, there's room [to] maneuver."That's especially true since, as Melissa Westbrook, a long-time schools activist currently serving as PTSA co-president at Roosevelt High School, observes, "There's no enforcement."Federal guidelines offer an ambiguous definition of restructuring. "There's a menu of options rather than a strict regimen," says Eric Earling, a regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education.A couple of those options, namely conversion to a charter school or a state takeover, are impossible here due to state law. That leaves three other choices: replacing "all or more of the school staff, which may include the school principal"; entering "into a contract with a private operate the school" (although charters are out, districts can form partnerships with outside groups, as Federal Way did with the Technology Access Foundation, a Seattle nonprofit focused on helping minority students); or implementing "other major restructuring of the school's governance that is consistent with the principles of restructuring."That last option, intended to give districts flexibility, is "open-ended," allows Earling."I guess that means they can do what they want to do," says Technology Access Foundation executive director Trish Dziko, who a couple of years ago proposed a partnership with Seattle to transform a struggling school. (The idea died amid community and bureaucratic opposition before being welcomed in Federal Way.) The open-ended option is the one most districts choose, according to a study of 42 restructured schools in six states released in September by the Center on Education Policy. Jennings says that No Child Left Behind "sounds tough, but leaves a loophole."While the federal government claims it will withhold Title I funds from states if certain guidelines aren't met, that rarely happens, according to Earling. He says the feds leave it to states to implement the "nuts and bolts" of No Child Left Behind, and states leave it to school districts, at least as far as restructuring is concerned."Our office doesn't have the power to go in and demand school change," says Shirley Skidmore, spokesperson for Washington State's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).Moreover, the feds don't take any punitive action at all toward schools that don't receive Title I funds, which are targeted for poor students. Schools not receiving these funds don't have to restructure, although they may be stigmatized by being put into what the feds designate as "Step 5" (each step indicates another year of failing scores, and Step 5 is the end of the road). Or they may not be; for example, it is not generally known that four non-federally-funded schools in Seattle are also at this final stage of failure, according to preliminary OSPI data: Ingraham and Franklin High Schools and Madison and Mercer Middle Schools.Whether these four, or indeed all Step 5 schools, are in need of drastic change is a matter of debate. The feds demand that special-education students and English-language learners, as well as poor kids and minorities, achieve at the same level as all students. So a school can be doing well overall but still be considered to be failing if, say, its special-education students fall below a bar that is raised every year—the exact same bar used for students without learning disabilities."This is a great school," insists Franklin principal Jennifer Wiley, noting that her school exceeds that bar for virtually every group in reading, if not math, despite a student body with more needs than most—52 percent of Franklin's students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Ballard, where the percentage of poor students is less than half of Franklin's, scores about the same in reading. (Nineteen percent of Roosevelt's students are signed up for free and reduced-price lunches, while at Garfield that figure is 27 percent.)"I'm not going to give up on an institution just because the government tells me it's [Step] 5," says Franklin PTSA president Stephanie Ragland.Most people aren't quite so upbeat about Aki Kurose, however. The school's WASL scores are exceptionally low: Only 48 percent of seventh graders passed the reading portion and 24 percent passed math, compared to district averages of 63 and 52 percent. Sharon Dodson says her daughter, who graduated last year, was not challenged academically, and felt some teachers "were there for the money, even though I know it's not much."Drama teacher Elijah Keltz, new to the school this year, says his understanding is that in previous years the staff lacked cohesion and "the kids hated the school." Last June, a student said she was pushed into a school bathroom and raped—an incident that administrators did not report to police until the next day.Even before restructuring was called for, the district launched various improvement efforts. "I feel like we reconstitute every single year," says Anstett, the art teacher ("reconstitute" is a commonly used synonym for "restructure"). For example, Anstett recalls the launch several years ago of a program in which teachers visit struggling students at home, and the subsequent "Southeast Initiative" which required teachers to sign "compacts" that committed them to extra training. However, Anstett concedes, "I don't know if anything really good or solid has come." Nevertheless, these programs have been repackaged, in a plan submitted to OSPI, as part of the restructuring the feds are requiring the school to do this year.Still, Anstett and others credit new principal Mia Williams for turning around school morale this year. "The staff has really pulled together," Anstett says.Adds Dodson, who has been so impressed that she has stayed on as Aki Kurose's PTSA president even though her daughter has graduated: "They know [Williams is] there for them."Similarly, Keltz says that "academics has shifted to a new place," as an extra hour of school per day has allowed for intensive 100-minute blocks of reading and math."Restructuring is not meant to be a big, huge stick, but to [look at] how we can provide success for that school," Santorno observes. Even so, the district broached what she calls "a further step of restructuring" in one of its closure plans, which would have moved Aki Kurose's population into Rainier Beach High School, thus creating a grade 6–12 institution. The proposal met with resistance from parents and teachers worried about the safety of the younger kids, and the district ultimately scrapped the idea.There's also some sobering evidence from around the country that the district might consider: The Center on Education Policy's study shows that those few districts that did make dramatic changes, like turning schools into charters or hiring completely new staffs, produced the same minimal improvement as those that made more incremental changes."Therefore, why should we put all our chips on the big things?" Jennings wonders. "We have to rethink this."

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