Control of schools

The state is to take over 24 schools that
missed goals under No Child Left Behind

Some parents and educators question
whether oversight will help schools improve

Parents and school officials reacted with skepticism yesterday to the state's plans to assume direct control of 24 public schools.

The schools are the first in Hawaii to receive the ultimate penalty under the federal No Child Left Behind law because they have repeatedly fallen short of the law's performance criteria.

But some questioned the wisdom of strengthening the state's grip on the 24 schools, some of which have reported gains in student performance recently despite high numbers of poor and non-English-speaking students.

"I don't think it'll help at all," said Rick Galanto, who has a son and daughter in Dole Middle School, one of the schools targeted for state-directed "restructuring."

Galanto credits No Child Left Behind's big stick with motivating schools to raise performance but said that stick is perversely being used to punish schools for trying to improve.

"The kids are learning. That's clear with my kids. They should just let them keep learning and let the schools keep doing their jobs," he said.

To recognize that hard work, the state Department of Education has spared several schools that have shown a 10 percent recent improvement over test scores achieved last year.

But the state is bound by No Child Left Behind to assume direct control of the other schools and institute reform plans.

Gin Lee, who has a daughter in Palolo Elementary, said the schools should have been given more leeway. The school's administration says students have raised their test scores as restructuring loomed, though not high enough to keep the state at bay.

"The problem is not the schools or their teachers. They're working hard and doing a good job. The problem is (No Child Left Behind) -- it's too harsh," she said, echoing a common criticism of the law.

President Bush's 2001 law requires that each of several student subgroups, including low-income, immigrants and those with learning disabilities, meet the same performance benchmarks in math and reading.

Those criteria will rise this year to 44 percent of students proficient in reading and 30 percent in math.

For "high-poverty" schools with substantial numbers of non-English speakers and learning disabled, reaching the targets has proved difficult. They are the first targeted for restructuring because they have been monitored the longest.

"How can you possibly expect those kids to score as high?" asks Myron Monte, Dole principal.

The Kalihi school takes in substantial numbers of students living in low-income housing at Kuhio Park Terrace and Kalihi Valley Homes.

A car will pull up almost daily with a new student just arrived from Micronesia, the Philippines, Samoa or elsewhere, Monte said. Many lack even a basic education.

By 2014, 100 percent of students in each subgroup are expected to attain proficiency, which Monte called "impossible." He said the state is soon going to gain an appreciation of No Child Left Behind's "fatal flaws."

For example, the unyielding focus on test results is forcing schools to place all their chips on the students with a reasonable chance of meeting test benchmarks, and to write off lower-performing ones, he said.

"The fact is that students are being left behind. We should be focusing on those kids further from the benchmarks, but we can't," he said.

The Department of Education has said no one will lose their jobs through the restructuring, but has otherwise provided few details on the ultimate impact on schools.

A clearer picture will begin to emerge soon. The state is anxious to ensure that school reform plans are in place for the 2005-06 school year and wants to finalize contracts next week with mainland education firms that will supply the plans.

Monte said he has also received a higher-than-normal number of transfer requests from Dole teachers unsure how the restructuring will affect them.

"They care deeply about the students but have to look out for themselves, too," he said.

Central Middle School Principal Melissa Trew said the education providers will have to prove they can cater to her school's unique student mix, which features a large population of low-income immigrant students from around the Asia-Pacific region.

"Our job will be to communicate those needs to the provider to help them refine their strategies," said Trew, who added that the reforms should be a "good thing" in the long run.

But Dole parent Galanto said the ultimate problem will remain: Schools will continue to be punished for the failures of students and parents to grasp educational opportunities.

"A lot of kids these days just aren't into learning. You can't blame the school for that," he said.

Central Middle School seventh-grader Sheyne Lopez said the school's focus on benchmarks has been intense but that he feels he is improving academically. He cannot imagine the state takeover being any more stringent.

"We get tests almost every day as it is. The teachers really push us these days," he said.

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