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Why Does Small Town District Where Every 3rd Grader Passed Test Get NCLB Reading Money While Struggling Urban Districts Are Rejected?
BOSTON -- It's been a while since Brockton superintendent Joe Bage has seen grown-ups cry.

That's what happened to his grant-writing team when they tried to explain that Brockton, like other urban districts, was rejected for a "Reading First" grant, while some small towns, including three in which every third grader passed the MCAS reading test, were

"I had to sit in on people crying -- four adult professionals -- on why we didn't get the grant," Bage said. "We need every penny we can get, from anyplace and everywhere. At this point, I am very unhappy."

Boston, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford and Cambridge were also rejected.

Meanwhile, several small towns, including Brewster, Chatham, Shutesbury, and Tisbury, along with five charter schools, were

Reading First, part of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, is designed to implement science-based reading programs in kindergarten
through third-grade classrooms so that all students are proficient readers by the end of the third grade.

Massachusetts this year has received $15 million -- and is in line for $100 million over six years.
The state Department of Education awarded 38 grants after examining 64 proposals. Districts were evaluated on their poverty rates, MCAS
performance, and number of underperfoming schools. The state Board of Education gave final approval of recipients.

Critics of the program say the federal guidelines are too strict. Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant told his school board that if he pledged to abandon his literacy programs in favor of phonics, Boston likely would have received a grant.

"It didn't get distributed on the basis of need," said Paul Schlichtman, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It got distributed on the basis of who was going to do exactly what the feds and state wanted them to do. It's a further erosion of local control."

The state program director, Barbara Gardner, said Washington "does have a clear direction they want to take reading down." But what it comes down to is: the best proposals get the money, she said.

"We did it thoughtfully and carefully. It's a competitive grant. You've got to write a good grant (proposal)," Gardner said. "I think we got a good mix of school systems throughout the commonwealth."

U.S. Education Undersecretary Eugene Hickok said in the past "whatever you wanted to do, you did" with federal grants. Reading First, he said, stresses a proven program and accountability.

"A lot of money was spent on reading, without a lot of results," Hickok said of past programs. "Congress and the president, all of us, want to make sure federal tax dollars yield results. The goal here is to do what works."

The towns of Shutesbury, in western Massachusetts, Tisbury, on Martha's Vineyard, and Ayer, in north-central Massachusetts, saw 100 percent of their third-graders pass the reading portion of the 2002 MCAS test, according to DOE statistics.

In other words, their kids can read, but they still got the grants.

"I was shocked that we didn't get it," Lowell reading coordinator Pamela Buchek said. "I'm still reeling. We were extremely careful trying to follow every guideline. Our district, in particular, certainly is in need of help."

Nearly as many Lowell third-graders (141) failed the 2002 MCAS reading test as the total number (156) of third-graders who took the test in Ayer, Shutesbury and Tisbury combined, according to DOE stats.

Although some cities were shut out, others were successful. Worcester, Springfield, Chelsea, Fall River and Lawrence received a combined $3.4 million.

Grants ranged from $110,450 (Tisbury) to $840,000 (Springfield). It's no jackpot, but anything helps as the state faces a $3 billion budget deficit and massive cuts. Districts are practically locked-in to receive funds for six years. As long as they show progress, the grants will continue.

"Most of the districts that we funded got priority points for poverty," Gardner said.

Grant recipient Boston Renaissance Charter School ($220,000), for example, has a higher poverty rate than the Boston Public Schools, she said, even though there's only a few hundred kids in grades K-3, compared to 15,000 in Boston's public schools.

On the 2002 MCAS reading test, 822 Boston third-graders failed, compared with 21 third-graders at Renaissance. The five charter schools that won grants will receive a combined $933,000 this year.

The federal guidelines stipulate geographic balance between urban and rural districts, she said.

"Unfortunately, there are poor readers in every district," Gardner said.

The guidelines also mandate that states "seek to fund only those proposals that show real promise for successful implementation, particularly at the classroom level, and for raising student achievement," a U.S. DOE memo stated.

In the second year, districts with more than one elementary school must expand the program to a second school and likewise, a charter school must partner with another charter school.

The DOE will use $3 million of the total to hold seminars to train teachers in "proven methodologies," including phonics, phonemic awareness -- the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words -- and vocabulary development.

— Associated Press
Some city schools lose out on reading money
The Standard-Times
April 3, 2003


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