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 Article of Interest - No Child Left Behind

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School choice: Stick or switch?
by Lori Higgins and Kim North Shine, Detroit Free Press, May 28, 2003
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Patricia Duncan has never felt her 7-year-old daughter was challenged to excel at Bellevue Elementary School in Detroit.

She said she did all she could to change that.

She volunteered.

She kept on top of Jasmine's studies.

And she kept in touch with teachers -- trying to be the "involved parent."

But that wasn't enough, she said.

"She wasn't learning what she should be," Duncan said Tuesday outside the school on Detroit's east side.

She became more frustrated last month after learning that Bellevue was among 216 middle and elementary schools that had received failing marks for continual poor performance on annual standardized tests. Of the schools deemed to have fallen short of the state's Adequate Yearly Progress standards, 96 were in Detroit.

Bellevue made the list four straight years.

Duncan said her anger eased when she learned that she had recourse. Now she is among the parents from those schools making a critical decision about their children's future.

Their choice: stick with the struggling schools they're at now, or take advantage of the option to send their children to higher-performing schools.

That choice is available to them through the No Child Left Behind Act, the sweeping federal legislation that demands more accountability of schools.

This fall, Jasmine will move to Butzel Elementary School, a Detroit public school Duncan has confidence in. Butzel is not among the schools identified as not making adequate yearly progress.

"She's ready to leave. It's not fun for her. She wants to learn," Duncan said of her daughter.

Duncan said she's grateful for the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to identify schools that need improvement and forces those schools to adhere to an improvement plan. But its hallmark gives parents whose children attend those schools an option to transfer within their district, with the district picking up the transportation costs.

Michigan has identified underachieving schools based on scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test.

For now, Bennie Buckley plans to keep her son Darius, a second-grader at Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park in the school because she's encouraged that the school will make progress. Her proof? The school plans to provide extra reading help for struggling students.

Buckley said she believes the blame for the school's low reading scores can't rest solely on the shoulders of staff. Parents also are responsible for making sure their children are prepared, Buckley said.

"We have a job, too. It all cannot be done in the classroom," Buckley said.

The Michigan Department of Education expects parents like Buckley to be the norm. "I don't anticipate a mass exodus of students out of one building and into another," said T.J. Bucholz, the department's spokesman.

That's mostly because Michigan already has a strong law that allows parents to choose their child's school, even if it's in another district. Since that law hit the books in 1996, and since charter schools became part of the educational landscape, Michigan parents have become savvier about picking their child's school, Bucholz said.

"They're learning that traditional public schools aren't the only game out there and there are more choices available to them," Bucholz said.

But the Michigan law doesn't require schools to provide transportation, a key sticking point for parents.

Dr. Georgia Hubbard, superintendent for the Woodward Academy, said no students have decided to leave -- even though the school has failed to meet adequate yearly progress for four years in a row.

The academy is a Detroit public school chartered as a school of choice by Central Michigan University in 1996.

"My impression is, parents feel we've been through a number of transitions, and they are willing to stick with us," Hubbard said.

The changes have already begun.

There will be summer school classes this year. There will be more tutoring, and plans are under way to train parents to teach their children. For the first time, curriculum specialists will be on staff, Hubbard said.

"No Child Left Behind is forcing us to have higher standards and to be more accountable," she said.

More parents have expressed interest in another option: The law requires schools to provide extra help for students, such as tutoring outside the school day.

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-591-5625 or  

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