By Paula Cronic : PNT Staff Writer
As schools in Portales and New Mexico plow toward serious consequences for failing to meet federal academic standards, at least one appears less realistic.
The state has neither the resources nor the will to assume management of public schools that repeatedly fail the No Child Left Behind standards for math and reading performance, officials said. Taking over a school is the stiffest of five possible actions.
More than half of the 828 public schools in the state missed Adequate Yearly Progress standards for 2005-2006, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department, including six in Clovis.
“For public education to have the staff to take over that many schools doesn’t seem reasonable or rational,” the executive director of the New Mexico School Boards Association, Mack Mitchell, said. “My guess is the New Mexico Public Education Department does not have the silver bullet — where they can take over a school and make it better than it is.”
Asked about the possibility of the state taking over Portales schools, Randy Fowler, Portales Municipal Schools superintendent, agreed with Mitchell. “They (state) don’t have enough people,” Fowler said.
“You know the majority of the schools, or over 50 percent of the schools, are in the same boat as all of the ones in Portales. It’s not so much that our students are not doing well but that one subgroup is not doing well, and I don’t expect them to be at grade level,” he said.
All six Portales schools fell short of federal testing marks designed to have 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Fowler said the reason for that was the way the subgroup for Students with Special Needs is assessed.
“If all of our students with special needs could be at grade level, we wouldn’t have a problem. But that’s not going to happen,” Fowler said.
Because they have failed AYP for two or more years in a row for the same reason, they have been labeled in need of improvement, and have been placed in various stages of the No Child Left Behind School Improvement Framework. Once in the framework, consequences for continuing to miss AYP grow stiffer.
Those schools, however, won’t find themselves suddenly buzzing with an entirely new staff or an overload of state officials, according to a New Mexico Public Education Department official.
“Sometimes people think when we say ‘take over’ it means we will bring in a whole new staff. What it truly means is we will be prescribing instructional programming and leadership at the school,” said Catherine Cross Maple, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Education.
Critics of the law say standards for English Language Learners and special education subgroups are simply unrealistic.
“In some instances, we are asking special education kids to do things they are not capable of doing,” Mitchell said.
The federal system, Mitchell said, is “dragging a lot of good schools down with weak schools.”
Previous data shows the widest AYP achievement gap in the state is among special education students, Cross Maple said. But there are schools in which that subgroup and others perform to standard, she said.
“I don’t really feel like we have failed because we’re making progress in the areas that we need to be making progress,” Priscilla Hernandez, assistant superintendent of instruction for Portales Municipal School District, said.
“If one subgroup does not make it, then the whole district does not make it. Our organizational framework is we’re not neighborhood schools, and therefore we’re always going to have more than 25 students in one subgroup.”
In schools where the performance of a student subgroup is the only area where the school is shown to be lagging, specific programs, in lieu of sweeping changes, would be implemented to bring those students up to par, Cross Maple said.
“I don’t see us lowering our (AYP) expectations soon, because our expectations are where they should be,” she said.
Her sentiments are mirrored at the federal level.
“Just because a school does not make AYP does not mean it is a bad school. It means there are areas where the school needs to improve. If one of the subgroups didn’t make AYP, more attention needs to be placed on that certain subgroup,” said Jo Ann Webb, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson.
Rather than continuing to toss schools into the No Child Left Behind framework for improvement, many are crying for reform.
The program is due for re-authorization by Congress in 2007, according to Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, an advocate of reform.
“There is a general awareness that we are in a very competitive world and we must make sure our graduates can compete,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who supports No Child Left Behind, but believes measures for the performance of special education and ELL students need to be adjusted.
“In New Mexico, there are many people who say the initial bar (for AYP performance) was set very, very high so it caused continuing problems for us,” he said.
Freedom Newspapers staff writer Marlena Hartz contributed to this report.