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All things must pass

 

Harlandale ISD lands a necessary grant to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind

It is the largest grant that Harlandale Independent School District has ever received: $185,000 for "Improving Literacy Through School Libraries," from the U.S. Department of Education. And it could not have arrived at a more opportune time.

At least a quarter of Harlandale ISD's students live at or below the poverty line. According to schools-data.com, which compiles statistics on public schools, about 10 percent of McCollum High School students are in special education, and 8 percent at Leal Middle School are limited in their ability to speak English. In other words, Harlandale is precisely the type of school district that needs extra help to meet the goals set by No Child Left Behind.

Although the Bush administration heralds the 2002 law as a "landmark educational reform," critics - including teachers, adminstrators, school boards, and even parents in districts throughout the U.S. - contend that NCLB punishes schools by hinging their success or failure primarily on test scores and other arbitrary data. (It also contains other scurrilous items such as allowing military recruiters access to student information and requiring that reading programs be "scientifically based," without stating what that means.)

Nor does the NCLB yardstick take into account challenges presented by large numbers of special education, limited English profiency, or economically disadvantaged students. Nor did the Bush administration allot enough money to implement NCLB; it is an estimated $12 billion short of the requirements of the legislation.

In light of NCLB's shortcomings and inadequate state funding, Harlandale officials are happy to receive anything that can help their students. "All libraries are suffering because of state budget cuts," said Connie Montalvo, lead librarian for Harlandale ISD, who wrote the grant application.

The grant, part of a larger federal appropriation designated for poor school districts, must be spent during the 2004-05 school year. Montalvo's list includes purchasing electronic media, on-line subscriptions, and increasing the size of the schools' collections. The district's high schools average about 25,000-30,000 items, including videos and reference materials, while smaller elementary schools have about 5,000 items; depending on the school, these amounts rank as excellent or above average, according to the Texas School Libraries Association guidelines. Some of the materials, however, are at least 10 years old.

"If we have good materials and librarians, libraries can help raise student achievement," Montalvo said.

As a district, Harlandale has met NCLB's required "Adequate Yearly Progress." Each year, schools or districts must meet the AYP - gains that the federal government projects will presumably ensure 100 percent of students pass proficiency tests by 2014.

According to Texas Education Agency data, in 2002-03, 86 percent of Harlandale's students passed the TAKS reading test, up from 69.5 percent in 2001-02. In math, 77 percent passed the TAKS last year, up from 64 percent. For the scores to count, 95 percent of a school's and district's students must take and pass the tests on the day they are administered.

"TAKS raises the standards each year," said Kathy Bruck, Harlandale's executive director of curriculum and instruction. "It's a good thing, but it's a huge challenge, especially with recent immigrant children and our special education population."

These students in what are called "subcategories" must pass proficiency exams at their grade level despite their English skills or disabilities.

Although Harlandale met its goal as a district, three of its schools, Leal Middle, McCollum High, and Frank Tejeda Academy, an alternative high school, did not meet their AYP goals. Not enough students were present to take the reading and math exams at Leal, while insufficient number of students taking the math test resulted in McCollum's rating. Tejeda received its rating because of a 21.5 percent graduation rate.

More than 30 Bexar County schools didn't meet their AYP, most of them because not enough students took the reading or math exams - or both. This shortfall isn't limited to poor districts; Alamo Heights High School didn't meet its AYP for attendance reasons. (Go to www.sacurrent.com to see a complete list from the Texas Education Agency.)

These numbers can be misleading, and illustrate the problems inherent in NCLB. Bruck pointed out that 50 of 53 special education students took the TAKS - a 94.3 percent attendance rate. Yet, the school didn't meet its AYP because 95 percent of all students, in every subcategory, must take the test. The rules have been relaxed somewhat for next spring's round of TAKS.

If Leal, Tejeda, and McCollum don't meet the AYP for 2003-04, federal law allows parents to ask for supplmental tutoring or to send their children to other schools within the district, at Harlandale's expense. Up to 20 percent of Harlandale's federal funds would pay for transportation for students opting for other schools, if there is room for extra students.

In Texas, districts and parents will be notified in November of any non-AYP schools; there is an appeal process, and a final report will be released next February.

NCLB's challenges - and those of a low-income district - make the $185,000 grant even more valuable for Harlandale.

"The goals are good, but the challenges are tough," Bruck said. "We should care about our success." •

By Lisa Sorg

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