Connecticut Communities Struggle With No Child Law
By KATE FARRISH And ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER | Courant Staff Writers
September 11, 2008
It took seven years, having students come to school at 7 a.m. and cutting back on social studies, science and field trips, but on Wednesday, Morris Street School in Danbury reached a milestone: removal from the state's list of failing schools.
They were rough years, Principal Bill Santarsiero said Wednesday. Reading was added during snack time, music, art and physical education classes. Fifteen families abandoned the school of 300 students in the years it was labeled as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"It was a poorly, poorly thought-out law, and it's damaged a lot of people," Santarsiero said. "What I've seen teachers and students go through emotionally — it was horrible."
Morris Street School was one of only five schools in Connecticut removed Wednesday by the state Department of Education from the "in need of improvement" list. Two districts, Groton and Stratford, were removed as well.
Across the state, about 42 percent of Connecticut public schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" toward performance standards required under the federal law. That list, which can lead to the "needs improvement" designation, includes about 100 more schools than last year, reflecting higher standards this year.
The benchmarks are based on the proportion of students achieving proficiency or above on the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test. Schools are cited if the whole student population or any one of several subgroups — including racial and ethnic groups, students from families with low-incomes or students with disabilities — fail to meet the standards.
In all, 349 of the state's 805 elementary and middle schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress," as did 59 of the state's 182 high schools.
Also, 44 of the state's 171 school districts — as a whole — failed to make adequate yearly progress, 12 more than last year.
Educators at the schools and districts coming off the failing school list said Wednesday they did so by involving parents, tailoring individual improvement plans to struggling students, making "data-driven" decisions on where to spend time and money, adding tutors, starting after-school programs and Saturday academies and intensely focusing on standardized tests.
That was the formula Stratford followed in the past three years at a cost of about $2 million. The law forced districts to focus on whether all children were learning, and it has paid off, Superintendent Irene Cornish said.
"I think it's worth it because we got off the dreaded list," she said. "We're doing what we should have been doing all along for all kids."
State Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said in a written statement that this year's test results pointed to the need to improve reading instruction in elementary and middle schools, because most of the schools on the list missed the mark in either reading, or reading and math.
By high school, math is a greater issue, he added, noting that one-third of high schools failed to make adequate yearly progress because of math test results.
McQuillan urged state officials to restore the Early Reading Success grants, which fund reading programs in the state's neediest school districts. The $19.7 million program was not funded in this year's state budget.
This year's standards for elementary and middle schools required that at least 82 percent of students score at or above the proficient level in math, and 79 percent at or above proficient in reading. That's higher than last year's standards of 74 percent in math and 68 percent in reading — a key reason why so many schools made the list.
For high schools, the standards rose to 80 percent of students proficient or above in math and 81 percent in reading, up from 69 percent in math and 72 percent in reading last year.
Schools are labeled "in need of improvement" if any school or group of students fails to meet the state standards for two or more consecutive years. The longer a school stays on the needs-improvement list, the more state sanctions it faces. The sanctions include allowing parents to transfer their children to other schools.
In addition to Danbury's Morris Street School, Brookside Elementary School and Kendall Elementary School in Norwalk, David Wooster Middle School in Stratford, and Margaret Generali Elementary School in Waterbury were removed from the needs-improvement list Wednesday.
Some of the districts and schools made it off the list despite significant challenges. At Santarsiero's Morris Street School, 75 percent of the children are poor and many arrive speaking only Hindi, Spanish or Portuguese at home.
The district offers free tax and food stamp advice to parents, and dental care for students.
"When you help the parents, you help the students do better in school," he said.
Kathy Stamp lives in the east end Waterbury neighborhood where she's principal of Generali Elementary and where more than 80 percent of the students are poor.
Stamp had promised her 600 students that if they made it off the list, those who improved their test results would be able to dunk her in a dunking booth. Friday morning, she'll put on an old-fashioned bathing suit with bloomers, and 75 students will get a chance to dunk her.
Stamp heavily involved parents in the school. They were given mastery test workbooks to help their children prepare for the tests. The school held mastery test nights, math nights and literacy nights and started a lending library for parents.
"It was a total community effort," she said. "We told the kids they could [get off the list] and they did it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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