Obama to visit Miami school on hard road to reform

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 7:57 PM

MIAMI -- At the Miami high school that President Barack Obama will visit on Friday, neon-colored flyers taped to the walls quiz students on tough vocabulary words.

Three years ago, Miami Central Senior High School - for five years given an "F" on state reports - began a transformation. The principal was replaced and in the last two years, nearly 50 percent of the staff.

Students moved in to a new, modern building around the same time.

Scores on state assessments show both progress, but also the difficulty of turning around a persistently low-performing school. Last year, 58 percent of sophomores were rated as proficient in math, up from 17 percent in 2001. But only 12 percent scored at grade level in reading - up from 5 percent nearly a decade before.

School officials acknowledge that progress is often measured in small steps.

"The way in which the students are receiving instruction, the engagement we see the students in currently - that will improve and it has improved," said Renina Turner, the school's principal.

Miami Central's story illustrates the challenges faced by public schools that have been rated as "failing" since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed into the law during the Bush administration. Despite frustrating efforts to turn them around, administrators and researchers still haven't reached a consensus over what works.

Many schools have made significant strides in student achievement in short spans of time, but how these solutions can be applied to solve a nationwide problem remains unanswered.

The Obama administration is trying to turn around the nation's 5,000 lowest-performing public schools with a nearly $4 billion infusion to the School Improvement Grant program. Schools awarded grants must choose one of four intervention models: Closure; reopening as a charter; replacing the principal and a majority of the staff; and hiring a new principal while providing further teacher development and learning time.

"The challenge with the four models is there really isn't good evidence to suggest that number one, these are effective, and two, they are effective in the time frame being required," said Thomas Hatch, a professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching.

"Unfortunately, it's not as if there's other approaches that you could say, 'Oh those are definitely more effective,' because I think part of the fundamental problem here is we're trying to do this on a significant scale," he added.

In announcing Obama's planned visit to the school alongside former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Bush picked Miami Central because it "tells an incredible story of the impact successful turnaround strategies and models can have on persistently low-performing schools."

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