Officials Seek Flexibility on 'No Child' Law

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fairfax County school officials say the sanctions imposed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act aren't helping struggling students, and the system is seeking permission to try a different approach at one school -- McNair Elementary in Herndon.

McNair has not met the federal requirements for three years now, and under the law, students are given the right to transfer to a higher achieving school. But Fairfax is proposing that students be required to remain at the school, where tutoring services would be expanded and teachers would offer a three-week "jump start" program in August to help children who lag behind. Transfers would be suspended for two years under the proposal but would resume the following year.

Fairfax County School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) and Superintendent Jack D. Dale have asked the U.S. Department of Education to approve the change. Gibson said the school system is spending tens of thousands of dollars to send to a nearby school the high-achieving students who opted to transfer out of McNair. He said that most struggling students are choosing to stay put and that the money would be better spent on help for those children.

"The key is to direct the resources to where they are needed the most," Gibson said. "This is about helping children succeed, not about labeling a school as a failure."

Fairfax wants to implement the strategy as a pilot program next year. Education Department spokesman Chad Colby said officials will consider the request. Colby also said federal education officials are moving toward allowing more flexibility in how the No Child sanctions are imposed.

The No Child law, which calls for annual math and reading tests for students in grades 3 through 8, requires that schools improve scores each year. Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities, disabled students and students learning English -- also must make progress for a school to make the grade.

Under the law, schools that don't meet the mark for two years must allow students to transfer to higher-performing schools. Schools that fail to make progress for three years must offer private tutoring to low-income children.

Robert Pianta, education professor at the University of Virginia, said Fairfax's plan makes sense for a school such as McNair, which has fallen just short of the federal benchmarks. Last year, for instance, the 840-student school would have met the standard if two additional Hispanic students had passed the English test.

"It sounds like there are a lot of kids who are learning in the school, and there's nothing that's structurally wrong in the school," Pianta said. "You want to retain the kids in the school for whom the school seems to be working well and boost the scores of kids who are on the fence."

Last year the Education Department allowed four Virginia school systems, including Alexandria, to offer tutoring before allowing students to transfer to other schools.

Fairfax's proposal is similar. But Fairfax officials want to offer tutoring to all students who fail the standardized tests, instead of only the low-income students who are automatically eligible under the law. The McNair pilot also would add the three-week summer session.

"I want to go after the kids who need the help," Dale said, adding that students who already have transferred will be allowed to stay at their new school. "You have to go child by child."

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