Under the 'No Child' Microscope

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

Like a struggling student in a class of high achievers, Hoffman-Boston Elementary School has fallen into an unenviable position. It is the first school in Northern Virginia under a federal mandate to restructure because of lagging student performance.

Yet while Arlington County educators search for ways to improve Hoffman-Boston, where black students' scores this year missed the mark, experts say more schools like it in the region and the nation will face the same order soon as the federal No Child Left Behind law forces states to raise academic goals for all students.

"What's challenging is they are under a microscope, but they aren't terribly different than other schools," Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent of instruction in Arlington, said of the small school near the Pentagon. "I think there are reasons why schools don't make targets, and it's easy when those reasons are clear and evident. It's not easy when they're not."

The 2002 law requires schools to show progress every year on reading and math tests in grades three through eight and once in high school, with a goal of all students passing by 2014. States are required to track scores of various groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, those with disabilities, those who come from low-income families and those with limited English skills.

Failure of any group to meet yearly targets raises a red flag, and repeated misses can trigger a range of sanctions. Schools that receive certain federal poverty aid, including Hoffman-Boston, can be ordered to offer free tutoring and transfers to better-performing schools. Those that fall short six straight years may face a shakeup through the remedy known as restructuring.

Restructuring means reopening as a charter school, replacing staff, handing over management to a private company or making any other major change. Many educators prefer the latter option because it is the most flexible. That is the case in Arlington. For Hoffman-Boston, major change means a larger role for the central office.

Johnston now meets at least once a month with Principal Yvonne Dangerfield and other administrators. Superintendent Robert G. Smith has the final say when decisions cannot be reached by consensus. The school, with about 315 students through fifth grade, will also continue to offer tutoring and transfers. Officials said 14 of the school's families chose to transfer their children this year. Dozens of students receive tutoring.

Dangerfield, who has led the school for five years, is aware of the stigma of labels.

"Needless to say, every principal wants to be in a school that is recognized as a successful school," Dangerfield said. But she said the school is making progress. "Our teachers are teaching, our students are learning and our families are extremely supportive of their children."

This school year, 27 D.C. schools are in restructuring. In Maryland, 82 elementary and middle schools are in restructuring or planning for it, officials said. In Virginia, Hoffman-Boston is one of seven schools in restructuring; the others are in Petersburg, Essex County and Richmond. Randolph Elementary School, also in Arlington, is one of four Virginia schools planning for restructuring.

Experts say more suburban schools nationwide, including those from well-regarded systems like Arlington's, will soon be ordered to restructure.

"It's not just going to be a problem of the inner city. It's going to be a problem of many school districts," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, based in the District. "This will come as a surprise to a number of school officials and to the public."

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