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Most Students Loyal Despite Low Test Scores

It takes more than government tests to convince parents that their children's schools are inadequate.

by John Sena

When Chaparral, Kearny and Salazar elementaries recently failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind test score standards, students at those schools had the option to choose a different school.

But instead of a mass exodus of students clamoring for a better education, principals found a group of loyal parents who were happy with their schools.

While the federal law was set up to allow families to pull students out of failing schools, the test scores apparently aren't a major factor motivating parents to switch the schools their children attend.

Chaparral Principal Theresa Ulibarri and her staff tried to contact as many of the 30 or so families she knew were not coming back this year. Most of them, she said, had moved out of the school district. Their leaving "had nothing to do with No Child Left Behind," Ulibarri said.

Schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" for two or more years are classified as schools in need of improvement. Students at those schools have the option to attend a handful of other schools designated by the district.

Of the 27 requests for a transfer from Chaparral, only one was because of No Child Left Behind, according to district records. The three schools that recently became schools in need of improvement had only 12 No Child Left Behind transfer requests. Eight of those were granted.

So why are parents at supposedly failing schools sticking around?

"I think they believe in the staff, and they believe in the progress their kids have made," Ulibarri said.

Ulibarri said she and her staff maintain close contact with parents, making it easier for parents to see the good things that are happening instead of looking at test results as the only indicator of success.

And while dozens of students have left other schools that failed to meet requirements, principals think other factors played a part in that decision.

César Chávez Elementary had 94 students leave who cited its No Child Left Behind designation.

The school is classified as a School In Need of Improvement II, a designation that means it has failed to meet requirements for three years.

Agua Fría Elementary has not made "adequate yearly progress" since the inception of No Child Left Behind.

Nearly 40 students left the school this year, listing its status as a failing school as a reason for departure.

But Laura Castille, principal at César Chávez, said she thinks perception played a larger part in the transfer process than test results or federal designations. "It's just one of those things," she said. "A school gets a bad reputation."

Castille said she often hears from parents about how bad they think her school is, but when, and if, they visit, they like what they see. "I hear the things people think about our school, but they've never been here," she said.

Michael Rodriguez, principal at Salazar Elementary, said some parents are more concerned with school size than test results. Agua Fría and Ramirez Thomas have more than 500 students, while César Chávez has more than 600. Chaparral, Kearny and Salazar all have fewer than 500.

Perception and other factors also play a part in transfer decisions in middle schools, principals said. Alameda Middle School, which has failed to meet requirements for several years, consistently has high departure rates for students. DeVargas Middle School, though, had only 17 students request a transfer because of test results, despite the school not meeting requirements for two consecutive years.

Because it is the only middle school not earmarked as needing improvement, Capshaw Middle School receives most of the students who transfer.

The principal there, Sue Lujan, said while the federal designations drive some of those requests, they often provide a vehicle for parents who want to leave schools for other reasons.

"I think sometimes people feel like moving will give them a fresh start," Lujan said, noting parents cite reasons such as safety.

The school has traditionally been a popular choice for transfers, Lujan said.

Parents used to line up at the door when principals were responsible for accepting or denying requests. "No Child Left Behind has given a simple approach to getting into Capshaw," Lujan said.

And district officials admit that while parents might indicate test results as the reason for moving their child, there is no way to tell if that is the real reason.

jsena@sfnewmexican.com

— John Sena
The New Mexican


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