Making the grade?

National | SPECIAL REPORT: The first year of the No Child Left Behind Act reveals both strengths (accountability for schools) and weaknesses (a lack of private-school vouchers) in the landmark law

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

VIRGINIA THOMAS WAS looking forward to retiring from her job as an administrative assistant at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., when her brother and his girlfriend abandoned their two children on her doorstep. Addicted to drugs, the parents were unable to care for their 2-year-old son Victor and 10-month-old daughter Gabrielle. With Washington's high-school graduation rate at less than 50 percent, Mrs. Thomas and her husband decided they could not in good conscience put the children in their local public school.

Mrs. Thomas and her husband knew they would have difficulty affording a private school for Victor, now 11, and Gabrielle, 8. Nonetheless both children attend Renaissance Christian Academy in nearby Suitland, Md. The only way they afford the tuition is through a private grant from the Washington Scholarship Fund. The fund covers half of the costs and the Thomas family takes care of the rest.

Last year with three months left of tuition to pay, Mrs. Thomas and her husband had only 92 cents left in the budget and received a loan from their local credit union. But she says the money is well spent. This year both children were on the honor roll and had perfect attendance. In second grade, Gabrielle already takes Spanish. Neither child has been left behind.

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Here's another sad D.C. story: Joann Prigg's grandson John last year attended Stanton Elementary School. She visited John's kindergarten class one day and found him in the corner coloring while the other students learned to read.

"His teachers told me he was so cute, that he could color," Ms. Prigg said indignantly. "They failed him and were even going to promote him to first grade!" She is sending him to a local Catholic school this fall where he will repeat kindergarten. She also receives a scholarship to help defray tuition costs. But Ms. Prigg also has a daughter in a Catholic school, and she tells WORLD that the family does not eat as well as she would like; she would rather spend her money on education.

So some children who were left behind are getting out-but the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that President George W. Bush signed in January 2002 is supposed to help every child. After one academic year under the law, however, results are mixed nationwide, particularly in the District of Columbia. And some in the education bureaucracy seem more concerned with making sure no public school is left behind.

The law requires testing for students in grades three through eight in math and reading and holds the schools accountable for the results. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress two years in a row are subject to corrective action.

If a school continues to fail after receiving special help and resources, its students are eligible to transfer to another public school with transportation provided. Disadvantaged students in these schools are eligible for "supplemental services" such as tutoring, after-school help, and summer school. Teachers are also required to take tests to meet new state standards and have until 2006 to meet professional qualification standards.

Fifteen D.C. public schools in the 2002-2003 school year were designated as "in need of improvement." Over 9,000 kids were eligible to transfer to a better school. Only 148 did. Many of the better D.C. public schools have no room for transfers. The story is the same elsewhere. In Chicago, of 125,000 kids eligible to transfer, 800 switched. In Los Angeles 200,000 students in 120 schools were eligible and less than 50 changed. In New York, although 220,000 children in over 300 schools were eligible, just 1,507 moved.

In Colorado, the Independence Institute found that in the first year of NCLB's implementation, many districts and schools did not completely inform parents of their ability to remove children from schools that had been given School Improvement Status. Some parents were misled, and 65 Colorado schools did not provide parents with an easy-to-understand explanation of their options at all. Thousands of parents received letters from administrators trying to discourage parents from transferring. Only one district in the state closely followed the notification requirements in the NCLB Act.

In the District of Columbia, many parents are complaining that they were notified too late about the public-school-choice option. D.C. public schools sent letters to parents on Aug. 12, and they had to choose another school by Aug. 19. This was too late for some to make any changes in their plans.

The desires of parents are clear. Washington, D.C., has the highest number of charter schools in the nation and large waiting lists for a limited number of slots. While some charter schools still lag behind private schools, others are performing at very high levels. At Meridian Public Charter School, 520 students in a transitional northwest D.C. neighborhood from pre-K through sixth grade use a curriculum based on that of the Calvert School, a century-old private school in Baltimore.


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