School Attendance Law 'Gone Awry'

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stephen Knolls School suffered the ignominy of failure under federal law in 2006 and 2007 for low test scores. This year, the Kensington school finally made the grade in reading and math -- only to be sanctioned for poor attendance.

The challenge in this case is not truancy. Stephen Knolls serves medically fragile children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida and Rett syndrome.

One student missed 119 days of school last year because of illness. An eighth-grade boy logged more than 80 absences before dying in January. When school health aides call home for routine matters, they take pains to begin each conversation by saying, "This is not an emergency," because parents generally prepare for the worst.

"We know that there are legitimate reasons for [students] to be home," said Tina Shrewsbury, school coordinator. "They're going to [medical] specialists. . . . They're having lab tests done. They're being hospitalized."

Stephen Knolls faces the stigma of three consecutive years on a state watch list of underperforming schools, due for release in coming weeks. Its dilemma highlights how students with disabilities can get caught in the politics of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Under the law, schools must show annual progress in test scores, attendance and graduation rates for all students and groups of students, including those who receive special education.

State and federal officials say the Montgomery County school system could have exercised an option to exclude Stephen Knolls from the annual accountability exercise. Special education centers may be exempted from annual progress calculations, provided their students are counted somewhere else, ideally at each child's neighborhood school. Most of Maryland's 24 school systems make such exemptions.

But Montgomery school officials say it would be disingenuous to pretend that Stephen Knolls students attended any other school. Many of them have never studied anywhere else. Montgomery officials say the school deserves credit for working hard against long odds to make academic progress.

"We're not looking to beat the system. We're just looking for some common sense to be applied to it," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The dispute offers "a classic case of how well-intentioned federal policy has gone awry," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "This district is earnestly trying to follow the spirit of the No Child law." But that doesn't give Stephen Knolls any help with a rating system controlled by the state and federal governments.

Stephen Knolls recorded an average attendance rate of 80 percent in the 2007-08 academic year, 14 points shy of the state standard. Attendance is a little-known facet of the federal accountability system, which is chiefly focused on reading and math, because it is a standard most schools easily meet. Last school year, 27 of 1,145 Maryland elementary and middle schools failed to make "adequate progress" under the law because of attendance. Repeated failures plunge a school ever deeper into the machinery of accountability and trigger escalating sanctions.

Stephen Knolls serves 42 of the most severely disabled children in the county, ages 3 and up. Wheelchairs and walkers line the halls. Several students have full-time nurses. Seizures and other medical emergencies are routine. Much of the day revolves around self-care: eating, cleaning, going to the bathroom, dressing, getting in and out of chairs. Students generally communicate by punching a recording device, pointing to a picture or making a facial gesture rather than speaking.

One morning this month, teacher Donna Moore held two flashcards in front of a child, one of several at Stephen Knolls who are nominal high school students. One card said October; the other, Monday. "We're looking for October," she said, in an exercise to identify the date. "We're looking for October." Eventually, the boy reached out and tapped the correct card. "There you go," she said. "Fine job."

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