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Four Vermont Schools Opt Out of NCLB
Four of the six Vermont schools that faced a second year of being stamped as academic weaklings under the federal No Child Left Behind Act have dodged that fate.

They didn't escape by posting higher test scores and meeting progress goals, as the law intends. Test scores for the 2002-2003 school year won't be released until next month, and it's unclear how the schools performed.

But the schools knew that even if their scores soared, they'd be in the dog house another year. It takes at least two years to get out, education officials say.

Hazen Union, Bellows Falls Middle School, Mount Anthony Middle School and Mount Anthony High School didn't want more federal scrutiny and embarrassment. So the four schools decided not to accept federal Title I money and the stricter student performance standards that come with it under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The remaining two schools on the list of weak schools -- Belvidere Central and Eden Central -- will continue to receive $11,166 and $83,371 in Title I money, respectively. Robert McNamara, the superintendent who oversees both schools, said the money funds one part-time and two full-time educators. All three provide the kind of extra help the small rural schools need to improve, so giving up Title I money would not be a good idea, he said.

The schools that declined Title I funding will still face state scrutiny and state-mandated performance goals. But they are no longer subject to stricter federal requirements that some administrators viewed as heavy-handed.

These include mandates to offer school choice and set aside large sums of money for free tutoring, even if there are few takers. The schools also faced dire consequences -- such as dismissal of staff -- if improvement didn't come fast enough.

David Bickford is assistant superintendent of The Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, which includes Hardwick's Hazen Union School.

Hazen, a seventh-12th grade school, was only getting $10,000 in Title I funds -- a small piece of the school's total budget. The $10,000 will not be going back to Washington. It will be reallocated to other schools in the union, Bickford said.

Hazen, meanwhile, will continue to strive to improve by offering a homework club for students, extra teacher training and revamping the curriculum. A task force is also considering increasing the academic standards for eligibility to participate on sports teams and other extracurricular activities.


Getting off the federal list gives the school more time to improve, Bickford said. "We knew that we were not going to avoid accountability but that we would be on a timeline with all the other schools in the state," he said.

Scores from the 2001-2002 school year suggest Hazen has work to do. Only 45 percent of eighth-graders achieved the standard or better when tested for basic reading understanding on The New Standards Reference Exam, Vermont's statewide assessment. Only 38 percent of 10th-grade students achieved the standard or better for basic reading understanding.

Still, parents like John DeGoosh of Hardwick don't think Hazen's problems are any worse than those found at other Vermont schools. DeGoosh, who has two daughters at Hazen, thinks the overall academic quality is fairly good. But he does see some problems.

"If you have one challenged kid in a school, that one kid can disrupt the whole class where nobody else learns either," he said.

Shifting resources

In Bennington, the Title I money that would have gone to Mount Anthony High School and Mount Anthony Middle School will stay in Vermont. It will be shifted to elementary schools in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said Helene Mellon, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

The supervisory union will receive a total of $1.8 million in Title I funds this school year. "We didn't forgo anything," said Mellon. "We just shuffled."

The schools in Bennington will continue to offer many of the services the federal designation triggered, she said. Mellon also said that unofficial test scores for the two Mount Anthony schools show big improvements. This is a testament to the community's will to improve, she said.

"Preliminary results are looking very good," she said.

The testing debate

Division continues over the No Child Left Behind Act. President George Bush and supporters of the law portray it as a savior for low-income students who have for decades tested below their higher-income peers despite federal aid targeted to help impoverished students under programs like Title I.

Critics say the law does not provide sufficient funds to create equal opportunity and relies on high-stakes standardized testing that does not accurately reflect student learning.

The Marlboro Elementary School board recently sent Vermont Interim Education Commissioner David Larsen a letter outlining their concerns that No Child Left Behind would waste money and valuable instructional time on unnecessary tests.

The federal law requires annual state tests in reading and mathematics for every child in grades three through eight by the 2005-2006 school year. Schools also need to test students in science in three grades.

That's too much testing, according to Francie Marbury, principal of Marlboro Elementary School.

"When we bring it down to doing it at every grade level, what information are we getting from it that improves the children's education?"

Bud Meyers, Vermont's deputy education commissioner, cautions that testing takes up less time than people might think.

Vermont already requires tests in second, fourth, fifth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th grade for various subjects. Meyers estimates this regimen takes up no more than 36 hours out of a total 15,000 hours students spend in school between kindergarten and graduation.

Testing represents a "teeny, weenie, itsy, whitsy amount of time" relative to the total time that kids spend in school, Meyers said.

But no one expects the debate over No Child Left Behind to go away. Larsen said it's unclear whether the schools that escaped the consequences of the act by opting not to take Title I money did the right thing.

"I think it's just too early to tell," he said. "The obvious dilemma here is, will a school's removing itself let's say from some of the NCLB sanctions be a detriment to the students? That's the bottom line. ... I think only time will tell."

— Molly Walsh
Four Vt. schools opt out of federal program
Burlington Free Press


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