By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Ernest Barka Elementary School looks more than inviting. It is the district's newest school building, positioned at the end of a road lined with upscale, neatly manicured homes. There is a colorful playground and ample parking. Inside, the layout is modern and spacious.
But Barka students failed to measure up to state standards for reading. It's now a School In Need of Improvement – a designation under the federal No Child Left Behind act. It also means Barka students can opt to attend another elementary school, one that is not “failing.”
This is a problem for Priscilla Maldonado, whose 9-year-old Joshua happily attends Barka.
“We have five elementary schools in the district – only two are 'passing' by state standards, but they happen to be on the other side of town,” said Maldonado.
Her son is doing fine academically. Maldonado said her problem is that she wonders what Barka is going to do to “fix” whatever the problem is there. She wants to know what will happen to the kids “being left behind,” who are failing to make the grade, and if her son is at risk of losing ground.
“My gut reaction was 'Are you kidding me? Really?' My son does well, he's never had a problem, and he's a good reader. But what about the other children? Some of his friends, who are at my house all the time, aren't doing so well. What's going to happen to them?” Maldonado said.
Derry Cooperative School District Superintendent Mary Ellen Hannon said there is nothing simple about explaining to parents what it all means. By the numbers, Barka should be a shining example. Based on the most recent New England Common Assessment Program tests, more than 82 percent of Barka students in grades 3 through 5 are proficient in reading – Barka scored above every other elementary school in the district, and tops the state average of 72 percent by 5 points.
“What happened this year is that that they became a SINI in a subcategory. Most say it doesn't make sense, but that's part of the bureaucracy of NCLB. It's also based on the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch which, at Barka, became greater than at Derry Village School, so the Title 1 designation was moved to Barka – and once a school becomes eligible for federal Title 1 funding, you must offer them school choice if the school doesn't hit the Annual Yearly Progress target,” said Hannon. “It feels like a shell game.”
John-Michael Dumais, Program Director for New Hampshire Parent Information & Resource Center, likens the ever-changing standards built into NCLB to a different game.
“Every year the bar is raised. I like to use the metaphor of getting a home run in baseball. Say you have to hit the ball 300 feet to get it over the fence, but the next year you have to hit it 350 feet, and the next year 400, so maybe you are just as good a hitter as you ever were, but because the fence was moved, you're no longer hitting home runs. It's the way the law is structured. The end goal of everyone reaching proficiency by the year 2014 becomes harder for schools to achieve, despite all the efforts being put into curriculum and compliance,” said Dumais.
“The idea behind the law is laudible, but is it realistic? If you believe the Bell Curve is a valid cultural phenomenon, then you will believe there are always those at the edge of the curve, always falling through the cracks and failing,” said Dumais.
According to Stephanie LaFrieniere, Title 1 Director for the state Department of Education, 38,935 students in New Hampshire schools were eligible to switch schools under the School Choice regulations. Of those, only 219 opted to go to different schools.
She notes that another issue in New Hampshire is that not all districts can offer choice – they just aren't large enough. There were 44 districts designated as Schools In Need of Improvement that could not offer school choice because they only have one elementary or middle school, LaFrieniere said.
“The hardest thing is to make that choice – leaving a school that is Title 1 to go to a school that is not means you're leaving behind the Title 1 programs, which are designed to help those students who are struggling academically,” La Frieniere said.
Dumais said parents should also understand that sending a letter about school choice is part of the compliance process schools. It does not necessarily mean that your child will be better off moving to a school 10 miles across town, or that the curriculum is better suited to a student struggling with basic reading or math skills.
“It's fairly complicated, and people over react. Our message to parents is not to freak out when you get the letter about school choice. Rather, it's time to get engaged. Find out what your child's school is doing to improve, and then get involved.”Dumais said.
On the Web: www.nhpirc.org