Failing schools face varied demands
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 25, 2005
Education standards of state, feds at odds

Pat Kossan
The accountability era is causing failing schools to come face to face with Arizona or federal education officials who are demanding big changes.

What's odd is that they aren't the same schools.

State law and federal law created two new and very different systems to determine which schools deserve the failing label.

This year, both agencies released their lists of failing schools, and only one school, El Mirage in the Dysart district, earned the dubious distinction of landing on both lists.

Both systems use AIMS test scores to determine which schools have failed, but they are used in very different ways.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the state looks at a school's average overall AIMS reading, writing and math test scores when ranking it as "excelling," "highly performing," "performing," "underperforming" or "failing."

"If they didn't fail under the state system, they probably shouldn't be failing," said Horne, who calls the federal system too rigid to be fair.

Federal officials, however, judge a school by whether a minimal number of students passed the AIMS reading and math test at each grade level and within smaller groups, such as kids learning English or kids in racial and ethnic minorities. There is little wiggle room in the process; miss in one grade or in one group and you fail what the feds call Adequate Yearly Progress standards.

In addition, to meet federal standards, schools must test 95 percent of their students. High schools must have a minimum graduation rate of 71 percent and elementary schools an attendance rate of at least 94 percent.

Hundreds of Arizona schools fail the federal standard every year; 303 missed last year. But miss any of these goals for five consecutive years and you are a federally failing school. Federal officials don't like the word "failing," preferring to call the schools "in need of restructuring."

All 12 of Arizona's federally failing schools missed the minimum rate of students passing AIMS.

 El Mirage Elementary School in the growing West Valley Dysart Unified District, is the only school on both the federal and state failing lists, and state officials are requiring big changes. They include replacing the principal, even though she just took over this year.

It's a growing district, and Marcus White, who has three children at the school, said federal and state officials are one year behind in their assessment of the school. White likes the new principal, wants her to stay and is confident this year's test scores will jump when they're released in June.

"I believe they're doing the principal a great disservice," White said.

The Dysart district hired Jennifer Regalado from the Arizona Department of Education, where she was the state's accountability director. Now she's Dysart's accountability director.

"It's a blessing in a way," said Regalado about El Mirage School's double hit. "It really gives us a focus."

Regalado said the school has been slow to align what is taught in the classroom with minimum grade-level skills the state requires to be taught and then are measured on the AIMS.

 Pueblo Del Sol Middle School in Phoenix's Isaac District ended up on the federal failing list because of poor student test scores and attendance.

Dora Elhidri is a teacher's aide at Pueblo Del Sol Middle School, where her daughter graduated and her son is a seventh-grader. There are plenty of reasons why kids don't make it to school, Elhidri said. Sometimes parents leave early for work and their young teenagers must get up and get to school on their own. That doesn't mean parents don't care, Elhidri said. They come to the school to talk to teachers, Elhidri said, but their first concern is their child's behavior and their second concern is that their child is sharpening his or her English-language skills. AIMS scores aren't high on their list of concerns.

"They understand it's important," Elhidri said, "but they don't understand the details or intricacies of it."

Isaac District administrators are intimately aware of those details and intricacies, and the school's restructuring is already under way, including hiring a new principal, new assistant principal and eight new teachers.

 Teresa Price has an eighth-grader at Glendale Elementary's Landmark Middle School and attended a meeting with state officials, who explained why the school was on the federal list.

"There is a lot I don't understand because of the lingo," Price said.

Landmark is not a bad school, Price said, but it's a school "caught in the war zone between two gangs." The new principal is enforcing uniforms and Price said gang fights and office referrals are down and the mood among the kids is more positive.

"It's been very slow progress," Price said.

She worries that teachers are still overwhelmed with too many students in a class, too many students who need extra attention. Many teachers are fresh out of college and are not well-equipped to manage a classroom, she said.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Joraanstad said the school is adding time to reteach students who need to master basic skills, including an extra after-school hour. It's also considering Saturday school for kids still lagging.

To get off the feds' list, these schools will have to pass Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row. Another eight Arizona schools remain on the feds' watch list even after they passed Adequate Yearly Progress in 2004. They must pass again in 2005 to get off the list.

State law strictly outlines options for Arizona's "failing" schools. Federal law allows its failing schools greater latitude for changes and gives them less direction. Reform decisions are in the hands of district officials. At the least, federal law requires a major restructuring "such as significant changes in the school's staffing and governance."

Federal law, however, requires state education officials to provide technical assistance and monitor changes at the federally failing schools. State officials gave the schools a May 15 deadline to submit their plans to the Arizona Department of Education for review.

"We wanted it as convenient as possible and for them not to feel defeated," said Tommie Miel, Arizona's school intervention director. "But we have to move up from here; we can't stay and wallow."

The state also has the responsibility of sanctioning schools that do not restructure or continue to fail the federal standard, state officials said. In the worst cases, the state has the power to withhold funds from the school.

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