Original URL:  http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/southwestvalley/articles/1004wvfedfolo04Z5.html

Feds hand down school labels
Measurement of education frustrates parents, principals
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 4, 2003

Pat Kossan and Betty Reid

This week, the federal government weighed in on the quality of Arizona schools and found about 226 lacking.

Some, however, were more lacking than others.

In the West Valley, Principal Jim Paxinos of Tolleson's P.H. Gonzales Elementary figured the federal formula gave him 144 ways to fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

The state confirmed he passed 143 but said the required 95 percent of fifth-grade English-language learners failed to take the test. Paxinos said they did, but no one at the district caught the data error. It left Paxinos' school failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress and without a right to appeal.

So what does he tell his parents?

"I don't know. I'm not sure any of them care enough to explain it," Paxinos said. "The parents are so supportive. They're as frustrated and confused as everyone else."

About half of the schools on the list made some improvements. If the trend continues next year, those improving schools could be off the government's watch list by 2004.

In a state where good news about schools is scarce, parents who noticed seemed happy.

"I was definitely pleased," said Ed Mares, who has a foster son at Phoenix's Camelback High School. Over the past year, the school's staff made a big push to bring parents into the loop by informing them where their children stand academically and where they must be for the campus to reach federal expectations. The staff also intensified its emphasis on reading and writing skills, Mares said.

This is only one of many ways the government measures schools. Over the past few years, federal and state governments have taken the trend to label and rank schools to new heights of confusion.

• Federal officials are using a new formula this year to determine if a school meets what is called "Adequate Yearly Progress."

• Federal officials use a different formula to rank schools in Arizona from the one used to rank Michigan or Florida schools. That's because the federal formula is negotiated state by state. Many state politicians are eager to reduce the number of schools federal officials deem as not meeting expectations. A lower number of failing schools creates fewer angry voters and costs less.

• Federal and state formulas are different. The federal government could rank an Arizona school as failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and the state could rank the same school as "performing" or even "highly performing" when the Arizona rankings are released later this month.

• The state's formula is also very different from the one Arizona used last year, when three schools were ranked "excelling." This month, under the new formula, the state is expected to rank 164 schools "excelling."

Marty Hoeffel, principal at west Phoenix's Alhambra High School, said he and his staff spent three hours working out the federal formula, trying to figure out why the school didn't improve. The federal formula requires schools to make progress in overall AIMS scores and in eight student groups, including five ethnic groups, English-language learners, students living in poverty and those in special education. Hoeffel thinks it may be his language learners who failed to meet federal expectation, even though they are required to take the test in English.

"It's very frustrating," Hoeffel said. "I was very disappointed. It was like a kick in the pants again."

Hoeffel is telling disappointed teachers and parents to hang on and see how the state will rank the school Oct. 15.

"I suspect under the Arizona formula, my school will be all right," Hoeffel said.

But, he said, he thought the same thing last year, right up to the day Alhambra High was labeled "underperforming." Now he's not even trying to figure out the new state formula.

Meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, even for one year, makes Phoenix Principal Louise Henderson happy enough to announce the achievement on Percy L. Julian School's marquee.

Also celebrating is Teresa LaMar, who has kids at the south Phoenix school and is president of its Parent Teacher Association. After Arizona ranked Julian "underperforming" last year, the PTA encouraged parents to attend math and reading classes so they could help their children with homework.

"We wanted to get out of the 'underperforming' label so bad," LaMar said. "Once we get rid of the label, we'll hold a pizza party."

Reyna Polanco, a parent at Phoenix's Greenfield School, at Baseline Road and 10th Street, is unhappy. The U.S. government said Greenfield failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, and Polanco said the ranking and labeling brings down campus morale.

The campus of 700 fourth- through eighth-grade students has a new principal, Robert Meko. Polanco, who temporarily heads the Parent Teacher Student Association, is banking on Meko improving Greenfield Elementary within a year. She didn't always have that kind of faith.

"I screamed a lot: 'How are they going to send a White man over here to understand our children?' " said Polanco, a Latina. "I was wrong. In the short time he has been here, he impressed me. He doesn't speak the language, but he speaks from the heart and he cares about our kids. You can't change everything in a short time."

Mesa mother Michele Blanchard said she backs accountability measures that help gauge her 9-year-old son's progress at Webster Elementary. Webster and Lowell elementary are the only two Mesa Unified schools to be on the federal watch list, but each made some progress this year.

"But I also check his work daily and feel that and his classroom tests are the best indication of how he's doing in school," said Blanchard, also a member of the school's Parent Teacher Organization.

Blanchard said she's thrilled, but not surprised, that Webster improved its Adequate Yearly Progress.

"This school does a great job of educating our kids," she said. "I think these gains show that and I know they'll do even better next year."

Webster Principal David Finley made big changes over the past few years. Teachers meet by grade level for two hours daily to plan and institute two-week instructional plans for students. Teachers also meet Wednesdays to review students' progress and identify those requiring after-school tutoring.

"It's been so successful for us because it helps identify those students who are struggling quickly, so we can swoop in and offer the individualized attention they need to succeed right away," Finley said.

Reporter Mel Meléndez contributed to this story.

Reach the reporter at pat.kossan@arizonarepublic.com.