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Half of Pennsylvania Public Schools Don't Meet Feds' Mandates

Ohanian Comment: What's it going to take for people to support their schools, take back their government, and throw the bastards out?

About half of all public schools in Pennsylvania aren't meeting minimum standards in math, reading or other areas, according to a federally mandated report released yesterday by the state Department of Education.

Nearly 250 schools -- 44 of them in Allegheny County -- have done so poorly that parents will be allowed to transfer their children to other schools this fall.

An additional 125 schools in Allegheny County were put on warning, meaning they'll join those schools next year if they don't improve. Statewide, 1,031 schools are on the warning list.

The worst category in the state's ranking calls for "corrective action" -- meaning a school takeover by a private company or a school "reconstitution," in which all employees can be replaced. Around 150 schools, all in Eastern Pennsylvania, have been placed on that list.

The state's first annual "Academic Achievement Report" was compiled to comply with the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" law that says all states must rate their public schools -- which includes charter schools -- or risk losing federal funding.

In addition to making progress on math and reading scores, schools in Pennsylvania are required to improve both four-year graduation rates and attendance rates from kindergarten through eighth grade. They are also required to make sure that at least 95 percent of students are taking required state assessment tests.

"I think we can as a state move virtually all of our kids to much, much higher levels of performance," state Education Secretary Vicki Phillips said yesterday in releasing the report.

The outcry from local school district officials who say they were unfairly categorized began immediately.

The Education Department's Web site was so clogged with visitors trying to get a look at the results that the data was unavailable for most of the day.

Several school officials around Western Pennsylvania scrambled to explain how their schools landed on an unflattering list and in many cases were furious that the state had misinterpreted or mishandled the data.

In North Allegheny School District, spokeswoman Joy Ed said several schools were incorrectly placed on the "warning" list because the district submitted the data in the wrong format. "They couldn't access it," said Ed.

In the Plum School District, spokeswoman Dawn Lynn Check said that Oblock Junior High School wrongly landed on the warning list because of erroneous attendance scores.

Fox Chapel Area Superintendent Alan Fager said he was surprised to see Dorseyville Middle School on the so-called "School Improvement" list -- which means the school must give students the option to transfer out of the school.

He said he'd been told earlier by the state that Dorseyville might be placed on the warning list because of the performance of its special education students. He said he plans to investigate the placement.

"We'll do what the law says we have to do," he said.

At Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, Downtown, chief academic officer Linda Clautti wasn't pleased to see her school on the improvement list and contends the state used incorrect graduation statistics.

"It really is unfortunate that the [state Department of Education] doesn't have 100 percent accurate information when reporting this," said Clautti.

She and officials from other schools -- including Plum and North Allegheny -- said they'll appeal their placement.

While state officials concede there have been some mistakes, Phillips said there's no evidence of "any common data error."

"We're getting a lot of questions, but when we sort through them, it's more about information and clarification," she said yesterday.

She added that schools were given preliminary data in plenty of time to debate the results; one set on July 15 and another on Aug. 5.

Some mistakes have been acknowledged. In Mt. Lebanon School District, four of the five schools that appeared on the warning list will be removed; only the senior high school will remain on the list.

"That was a data error that our contractor made," said Phillips. "That's why this really is a preliminary list.... We don't expect lots and lots of schools to come off the list, but we do expect a few."

She also acknowledged that four Pittsburgh schools were improperly categorized -- Belmar, Fort Pitt and Vann elementary schools and Washington Polytechnic Academy, a middle school.

City school officials, who called a news conference yesterday, mentioned the errors, but for the most part, Superintendent John Thompson focused on the 31 schools that weren't on any negative lists, and on the progress city schools have made in overall student performance and in closing the gap in achievement among black and white students.

City school officials also outlined plans for helping schools that do need improvement. For instance, Thompson introduced a new software program called SchoolNet yesterday that will be used to examine students' weaknesses in math and reading.

Under the federal law, schools that land on the school improvement list must notify parents by mail. The letters will tell parents they have a choice to send their children to a school that's not on the list, and possibly that the school is appealing its rating.

Schools have until Aug. 20 to appeal their status on the state list. Then, the state has 15 days to accept or deny the appeal.

What that means is that students who want to switch schools probably won't have that chance until after school begins.

To further complicate matters, the state must release a list of "persistently dangerous schools" and students also are allowed to transfer out of those schools. That list should be ready within days, according to Phillips.

City school officials already have a proposal for offering school choice to parents of youngsters at affected schools. The plan will be presented to the school board for approval this month.

Schools must pay transportation costs for any child who wants to attend another school. In Pittsburgh, nearly $2.6 million of the district's $17 million in Title I funds has been set aside to cover those costs.

Thompson and other school officials said they couldn't estimate how many students might choose to transfer; nationally, only a small percentage of students have taken advantage of the transfer option.

But some may not have that choice at all, because there are no schools in their district to which they can transfer. In tiny school districts such as Sto-Rox, there may be only one elementary school.

Federal officials have encouraged neighboring school districts to take in those students, but the welcome mat is not out in many places.

Thompson said city school officials have no plans to make arrangements for students from other districts.

"We need to clean our own house before we invite others in," he said.

In cases where there are no other schools available, principals should offer computerized instruction or "distance learning," intensive tutoring, or even create a small "school within a school" for low-achieving students, said Ron Tomalis, U.S. acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

Whatever is done must be done quickly, Tomalis said yesterday.

"A sixth-grade girl doesn't have the opportunity to wait for a school to turn around," he said. "She's only going to be a sixth-grade girl once."

But as of yesterday, only 13 states had released their individual state report cards, Tomalis said.

Tomalis said a state-by-state report, which could give a clue as to how Pennsylvania stands nationwide, must be delivered to Congress by January.

Some states are balking at preparing the report, resentful of federal intervention in local schools.

In Harrisburg yesterday, some politicians and education advocates pointed to the list of poor-performing schools as yet another reason to approve education reforms being pushed by Gov. Ed Rendell.

— Jane Elizabeth and Carmen J. Lee
Half of Pa. public schools don't make the grade in math, reading
August 13, 2003


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