Diverse Schools Need

Help Meeting Standards

The quantitative standards mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act are a step forward. So are the act's requirements to hold schools and educators accountable for educational results.

In this regard, Jay Mathews's Nov. 4 column in the Fairfax Extra ["No One Need Feel Left Behind by Federal Education Mandate"] is correct. Students, parents, educators and public officials need the means to gauge schools' successes.

Mathews fails to highlight, however, that the act includes other provisions that will seriously challenge the Fairfax County school system. The act requires that schools demonstrate progress not only for students in general but also for economically disadvantaged students, students from racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and students with limited proficiency in English. The act asks schools to meet not one standard but a series of standards tied to different student populations. Fairfax County's challenge arises from the fact that these populations are distributed unevenly across its schools.

Low-income students make up 15 percent of Fairfax County's student population, according to a recent article in Washingtonian magazine, citing school district statistics.

Yet at nine of the county's 24 high schools, more than 20 percent of the students are from low-income families. At six high schools, more than 10 percent of the students have limited proficiency in English. Ten percent of the county's students are African American. Nevertheless, African American students make up less than 10 percent of the student body at 14 high schools but more than 20 percent at four others.

Hispanic students account for 11 percent of the county's students. At 11 high schools, Hispanic students make up less than 10 percent of the student body, while at four high schools they account for more than 20 percent of all students. Similar situations exist at middle and elementary schools.

Viewing the statistics in the Washingtonian article, one has to wonder whether the School Board has done everything it can to ensure that all schools are as diverse as they ought to be. It looks as if the School Board, by failing to revise school boundaries, is turning a blind eye to racial and socioeconomic segregation. School Board members need to search their consciences on this issue.

In the immediate context of school accountability, moreover, the distribution of school populations means that some schools are being held to a much higher standard than others.

Schools with many students from poor or immigrant families, for example, are being asked to accomplish far more than other schools. This has always been true, but not always acknowledged, and we need to praise the No Child Left Behind Act for highlighting the issue.

Since some schools are being asked to meet greater challenges, the School Board needs to ensure that they have the resources they need, presumably greater resources than other schools.

Given the uneven distribution of various student populations and the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, it is critical that the School Board and school administrators distribute resources now to meet each school's challenges. Otherwise, Fairfax schools with large minority, immigrant or poor student populations are apt to fall short of the new standards. The School Board will then have to face bad publicity, ill will and still more difficult decisions. More important, Fairfax County students will not have received the educations they deserve.

James P. Hubbard