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By the Mississippi Delta, A Whole School Left Behind

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

COMO, Miss. -- Of all the nation's elementary schools, the one serving this poor, rural crossroads is at the bottom of the heap.

Its math and reading test scores ranked at the bottom in Mississippi last year, and Mississippi, in turn, ranked last among the states.

"We're just light-years behind," said Versa Brown, the school's new principal.

Como Elementary is, in other words, just the sort of school that was supposed to benefit from the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization by Congress.

But in Como and other poor, rural districts around the country, the law's regimen of testing and sanctions has had little, if any, effect.

Despite abysmal test scores, Como earned a passing grade under No Child Left Behind, largely because the standards of student proficiency, which are determined individually by the states, have been set so low in Mississippi. Its small size also exempts it from some standards. The resulting passing grade -- it makes "adequate yearly progress" -- has exempted Como Elementary from any of the corrective actions dictated by the law.

But the more fundamental difficulty, administrators said, is that while the law requires schools to have "highly qualified teachers," places such as Como face critical difficulties in attracting any teachers at all. The location is remote, the salaries are low, and its at-risk students are arguably more difficult to teach.

More than a third of Como's 32 teachers are new this year, and five of those have been hired with an "emergency license" because they lack full teacher training. At least three of the new teachers had been dismissed or released from other schools. One resigned after just a few weeks when he was found hiding from the third-graders in his class who were throwing papers at him.

"Has No Child Left Behind done some good things? Sure," said the state's superintendent of schools, Hank Bounds. "But in many places like the Mississippi Delta, I would have to say no."

He rejected the notion that raising test standards -- without somehow persuading legions of motivated teachers to move in -- would help students.

"It's easy to put your bow tie on every day and say, 'If Mississippi would just do X then you would see Y results,' " he said.

As Congress this fall begins considering the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, at least some of the law's effects on places such as Como Elementary are being rethought. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House committee overseeing the reauthorization, said the law should help states recruit teachers and give them incentives to develop stronger standards.

"Unless we do those two things, it's going to be very difficult to provide kids with the quality of education they deserve," he said.

On the edge of the Mississippi Delta about 45 minutes south of Memphis, Como is a small town surrounded by fields. Its downtown consists of a strip of old brick storefronts, some empty, facing a railroad track. A rusted water tower hovers in the distance.

About 25 percent or more of the population is white, but only a handful of whites -- about 1 percent -- attend the public schools. Many instead attend Magnolia Heights, a private academy.

Como Elementary's student body is 99 percent black, and most of the students live in poverty, many in tattered mobile homes.

Some teachers have to buy books and other basic supplies for their classrooms, and then take their neediest students to Wal-Mart to buy clothes and backpacks. Last week, a teacher gave an old clothes dryer to a grandmother who kept sending a student to school in wet clothes. The school itself could use a coat of paint and new linoleum floors, which have been worn through in places to the concrete.

Challenged by poverty, indifferent parents and transient teacher ranks, Como Elementary scored dismally on Mississippi's annual school tests.

According to the government tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the "Nation's Report Card," Mississippi ranks last among states in combined math and reading scores for fourth-graders, the only elementary grade in the survey.

And within Mississippi, Como sits at the bottom for test scores. The combined reading and math scores for grades two through six -- the earliest grades are not tested -- were among the bottom three in the state.

The state as a result recognizes Como as a "low-performing school."

Yet under No Child Left Behind, Como Elementary is considered to be making "adequate yearly progress" because enough of its students have demonstrated "proficiency" -- a standard that the state itself gets to define, and has done so at a very low level.

A report by the Education Trust is telling: While the state has judged that 89 percent of its fourth-graders are reading proficiently, the federal tests assert that only 18 percent are.

"There are clearly some state tests that are too easy," said John Cronin, a researcher at the Northwest Evaluation Association and co-author of a recent paper on the subject called "The Proficiency Illusion."

Como Elementary's small size also makes it easier to get a passing grade under the law. The law requires measures of proficiency not just from the school as a whole but also from each of its "subgroups" -- such as low-income students, the disabled, Hispanics and African Americans. But if a subgroup at a Mississippi school has fewer than 40 students in it, the standards do not apply -- an exemption that particularly benefits small schools.

Faced with criticism over its testing standards, Mississippi is planning to raise them next year.

But a tougher standard will not resolve the challenge of attracting the "highly qualified teachers" -- with a bachelor's degree and demonstrated proficiency in class subject matter -- that places such as Como desperately need, Bounds and others argue.

The nature of the work -- bringing disadvantaged children up to speed -- is arguably more difficult, while the pay is less. Nearby jurisdictions, such as Memphis, pay roughly 30 percent more for teachers, and Mississippi cities that have casinos can also afford to pay far more than Como's district.

Some good teachers come anyway. "I know somebody has to stay here," said Chiquitha Rosemon, 31, a second-grade teacher whose students last year fared well on the tests. "You have to love the children."

"Some of the kids come in here and don't even know how to hold a book," said Lauren LaVergne, a first-grade teacher. "They hold it upside down, or they read it from the back to the front. They just haven't ever been read to."

Other teachers arrive at Como because they could not make the teacher exam scores required in Tennessee, or because they have failed elsewhere. Several struggle just to maintain order. Their students slump in chairs. Some seem to doze off. Some puff out their cheeks to make rapping sounds and shimmy in their seats. Principal Brown peered through the doorway of one classroom and watched the teacher doing paperwork as the kids romped.

One of the new teachers hushed his first-grade class over and over during a fill-in-the-blanks exercise.

"Those people who are talking are not going to know what to do," he warned.

Several times, he motioned for quiet. Soon he began his warning count. "One. . . . Two. . . . There are a lot of people who are going to get their cards full. . . . Three."

Later, he said frankly that the districts in Tennessee, where he lives, were "too picky" to give him a job.

Como wasn't.

Brown offers her own biography as a parable of what can happen without, and with, an education.

A native of the Delta, she dropped out of high school at 17 and began life as a fieldworker. She cut tobacco in North Carolina and picked celery in Florida and cotton in Mississippi. Then she worked as a prison guard.

At 33, she decided to go back to school, earning straight A's and graduate degrees.

Now, she said, she isn't waiting for No Child Left Behind to make a difference.

To pique the interest of parents, she has invited them to school breakfasts -- "If you say free food, they'll come," she said. Every Sunday she goes to a local church to plead for community support. She is arranging to have state prison inmates paint the school. She has even written to actor Morgan Freeman and talk show host Oprah Winfrey for help.

Some aid has already arrived. The Barksdale Reading Institute, funded with $100 million from Netscape founder Jim Barksdale, last year placed two teachers at the school who run a remedial reading program.

"We know we can do better," Brown said. "And if it takes my last breath, we will."

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