Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fifth year of failing grades may await Metro

Schools audit identifies nagging problem areasBy JAIME SARRIO • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • March 1, 2008 It will be at least another school year before Metro Schools is able to meet state goals under No Child Left Behind, education officials said Friday. That means the troubled district, which has failed to meet standards four years in a row, would face stiffer penalties under the school-reform law and lose more local control to the state department of education. It would also be another blow to the district's reputation, because Metro Nashville and Robertson County are the only two districts in Tennessee facing such severe sanctions. Local policymakers and state officials say it takes longer than a year to repair a damaged district and steer students on a new course. And that means a fifth year of failing scores from spring standardized testing is a likely fate for Metro Schools. "I think we've already begun some of the tough stuff of swallowing it and accepting it, and now we're ready to move forward and correct it," said board member Steve Glover, who represents the Donelson area. "We're turning the ship around and this is a pivotal point. You don't get here overnight, and we're not going to turn it around overnight." Friday, board of education members and state reform officials gathered in Nashville to discuss the results of an independent audit, which detailed reasons for the district's poor performance. Many of Metro's students have been struggling to learn math and reading. Poor reading scores among Hispanic and black students and dismal math scores across the county prompted the district's "corrective action" status under No Child Left Behind. The state stepped in last summer and will continue to be a presence until Metro can meet benchmarks for two years in a row. The state plans to offer employees and consultants to help the district reshape its curriculum and assessment departments and to advise in other areas. According to the audit findings, some of the district's major flaws are in leadership, academic content and expectations, professional development and culture and climate. The district also has a habit of spending money on programs that don't directly relate to material students will be tested on and not following up to make see if new programs are effective. Climate of fear found Pedro Garcia's exit in January may solve some of the leadership and climate problems, because a culture of fear existed under his direction, according to the audit. But it is an issue the district must continue to address with the selection of the next director of schools, said Connie Smith, a high-ranking state official who is overseeing the district's reform. "You can repair it by putting a person in the big job who will be respected and who can provide the truth to the people in the trenches," Smith said. Interim director Chris Henson said he plans to sit down with district staff and discuss how to implement the recommendations from the audit, performed by the nonprofit group Edvantia for about $30,000. But even business leaders, who worry about what financial impact a failing school district has on the city, seem to know that it's unlikely this year's changes will be reflected in next year's No Child Left Behind results. "People are feeling an urgency because we know any significant interventions, such as high school career academies or focused teacher training, will take more than a year to produce tangible results," said Marc Hill, chief education officer for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. "We have to get these initiatives right the first time, because under NCLB, the clock is ticking." Metro Schools likely will move into "restructuring 1," which gives the state power to assign personnel and force the district to plan for a takeover, in addition to the powers it already has. Alene Arnold, whose children attend Percy Priest Elementary, said she wasn't surprised by the audit's results. She hopes the district listens so that it can move into good standing sooner or later. "Real change takes time, and we need to give the system and the community time to address these needs," said Arnold, who was interviewed for the audit. "If the restructuring addresses the district's needs, that's what needs to happen."

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