By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
With the new school year less than a week away, thousands of parents in Snohomish County and throughout the state are dealing with some sobering news: their children are enrolled in schools the federal government deems to be failing.
Letters sent to parents of elementary and secondary students earlier this month lay out the situation and, in some cases, offer them a chance to transfer their child to a non-failing school, if one exists, and obtain tutoring if they qualify.
The missives, which a majority of public schools in Washington’s 295 districts had to send out, are punishment for not complying with a federal law requiring every student in a school to pass state tests in math, reading and English language.
Their arrival is stirring questions from some recipients.
“There is a fair amount of confusion,” said Cynthia Jones, director of categorical programs for Everett School District who received parents’ calls about the letters. “There is confusion about what does it mean for my child’s school and what does it mean for my child.”
The confusion dissipates, Jones said, once she spends a few minutes explaining the reasons for the notification.
“It’s great when a parent contacts us,” she said, because their questions can be answered in greater detail than can be laid out in the letter.
Everett and Snohomish school districts were among those which mailed letters the week of Aug. 11. All districts in Snohomish County acted by the end of last week.
On Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn will reveal how many of Washington’s nearly 2,300 schools are affected.
The letters are a requirement of the 2001 law known as the No Child Left Behind Act. Under that law, states set standards for student achievement in math, reading and English language at each grade level.
Then each year, schools are required to make what’s known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. The law requires 100 percent of students— including students with disabilities and those for whom English is not their first language — meet those state-drafted standards by 2014.
If even one student fails to meet a standard, the entire school is deemed to not have met the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement, triggering the letters and other steps.
“While every educator and parent wants every child to succeed, the regulations now require a school to be declared as failing if just one student at a school does not pass one test given once during the school year,” Tom Albright, president of the Marysville School District Board of Directors wrote to parents.
“This is not a meaningful measure of student growth or achievement. Imposing sanctions based on this is simply absurd,” he wrote.
Washington, like most other states, had enjoyed a waiver from the federal law’s stringent rules intended to force reforms aimed at getting every student to grade level in those subjects. But Washington lost its waiver earlier this year when state lawmakers refused the federal agency’s demand to require use of test scores in evaluating the performance of teachers and principals.
One of the consequences is the requirement to send the letter and inform parents if their child might be eligible to transfer to a nearby school that is hitting its AYP targets.
Also, at schools deemed in need of improvement, children eligible for free or reduced lunch are entitled to receive tutoring and other educational services. School districts must pay for transporting students to new schools and for the off-campus tutoring programs.
Many in the education establishment decry the sending of letters but there are those who see value in them.
“The greatest weakness in public education today is that parents do not have a meaningful voice in deciding where their children will go to school. Sending out letters to parents is a step in the right direction, because it tells parents how well, or how poorly, school administrators are meeting their paramount duty to make sure every child has access to a high-quality public education,” Liv Finne, Director for Education for the Washington Policy Center, wrote in an email.
Julie Robinett Smith is a parent who understands the situation and wasn’t surprised when a letter arrived from the principal of Riverview Elementary in Snohomish where her son, Humoody, is going into the sixth grade.
“Riverview is a really good school,” Smith said. “It’s not the teachers. Those teachers are fabulous.”
She works closely with teachers and staff because her son is blind and his lessons have to be adapted.
In the 2011-12 school year, Riverview was a destination school for transferring students. An influx of transfers was followed by a drop in test scores and the school found itself not meeting its AYP target, Smith said. It may be because the school has many Spanish-speaking students who are struggling to learn English, she said.
Smith is not planning to move her son, who is in the highly capable program, to another school. She thinks the attention spurred by the notification letters could help turn things around for struggling Riverview students.
“They’re going to get more resources to help those kids,” she said. “I think it’ll be a better school year.
Letters varied in form and content from district-to-district but the message conveyed in them was the same: student achievement is improving and parents are strongly encouraged to get involved to assist in making gains even greater.
Typical is the letter from Dirk Adkinson, principal of Challenger Elementary in the Mukilteo School District.
“We are very proud of the students at Challenger Elementary School and the gains they are continuing to make on the Washington State annual academic assessment. We are encouraged by their progress, yet we also know that our work is not finished,” he wrote.
How many students will wind up transferring is unclear as districts continued receiving and processing requests Friday.
Officials of the Everett School District reported that as of Aug. 20 there were 62 transfer requests for students attending one of the district’s six Title 1 schools not meeting AYP targets. There are nine other schools available for them to attend.
In Mukilteo, there will be no transfers because there are no schools available for transfers, officials said.
Meanwhile, educators and lawmakers don’t fear a long-term impact from the letters.
Cynthia Jones of the Everett district said she didn’t think the subject of the letter would be a lingering issue once classes begin Sept. 3.
“I do think it undermines the public confidence in public education and in the federal government,” she said. “I think that perception lingers even if later on people can’t say to you here’s why I feel that way.”
Herald Writer Amy Nile contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos.