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Palm Beach Post -- July 12, 2003
by Kimberly Miller

School district officials are preparing for the possibility that up to 60 percent of Palm Beach County's schools could be put on federal academic probation this summer, regardless of the grades the state gives them.

Under the new No Child Left Behind Act, poor students in schools that receive federal money must perform to state standards in reading and math or the school is considered to have not made "adequate yearly progress." There are 96 Palm Beach County schools in which 50 percent or more of the students are poor enough to receive free or reduced lunch.

Some of those schools, however, have received high grades -- even A's -- from the state's accountability plan because it emphasizes improvement from one year to the next.

The federal standard is different. It requires that a standard percentage of students perform at grade level, although it does build in a small improvement clause that could save some schools.

On the Treasure Coast, educators are still waiting for word on their schools' fates.

Sandy Wolfe, the St. Lucie County School District's interim superintendent, said officials there have not attempted to calculate how their schools will fare under the new federal requirements. They expect the state Department of Education to notify them about their schools' standing soon.

"With this being a new law and there being so much uncertainty, we have not tried to calculate that ourselves," she said. "We're waiting."

In Martin County, school board members plan to discuss the matter at a July 22 workshop.

The clashing accountability plans, under which an A-graded school in Florida can still be on federal probation, come from close allies: Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother President George W. Bush.

Schools report due out soon

Gov. Bush's program, the "A-Plus" accountability plan, has remained largely unaffected by the federal law until now because its testing program met all of the act's guidelines. But as President Bush's law takes effectin the Sunshine State, educators are watching the politicians closely.

"What will be interesting in this politically is how the state works with the federal government," said Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson. "I don't think the feds are in a position to try and manage what is going on in the schools at a local level nationwide. Under the Constitution, education is a state function."

The Florida Department of Education is expected to release a report this month or next that will show which schools statewide did not make "adequate yearly progress" this year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

When asked whether a majority of Palm Beach County's poor schools are in danger of not making the cut, Joe Orr, a consultant working with the district, said, "I would think that's a good guess."

That means roughly 59,000 students could find themselves in schools that don't meet federal standards.

If schools do not meet the academic standard two years in a row, their students must be allowed to go to better-performing public schools and the district must provide transportation.

School officials cannot use crowding as an excuse not to send students to better-performing schools, a fact that could derail the county's plan to curtail new development near crowded schools.

Also, if a large number of schools have to offer school choice, the district could have trouble finding better-performing schools to send students to.

"We may find ourselves scrambling," Orr said.

This year, meeting standards means 31 percent of students are reading on grade level and 38 percent are performing math on grade level. By the 2004-2005 school year, 48 percent of students must be reading on grade level, and 53 percent must be doing math on grade level.

That slowly increases until 2014 when all students must perform on grade level.

The standards must be met for nine subgroups of students based on race, poverty level, disability and whether the student's native language is not English.

The only exception in the law is a "safe harbor" rule that says a subgroup does not have to meet the standards if its test scores are 10 percent higher than the previous year.

Still, students in six Palm Beach County schools, including all of the high schools in the Glades and nearly all of the elementary schools in Riviera Beach, did not meet federal standards this year.

The schools affected are West Riviera, Lincoln and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune elementaries in Riviera Beach, Glades Central High School and West Technical Education Center in Belle Glade and Pahokee Middle/Senior High School.

The deadline to notify the school district if a parent wants to change to a higher-performing school is July 15.

The schools were singled out because they received F grades from the state last year based on scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

                       New worries, confusion

Even though some of the schools raised their grades to a C this year, it wasn't enough to meet federal guidelines.

South Grade Elementary School Principal Keith Oswald is afraid his school will be in the same situation.

Although his Lake Worth school raised its grade from a D to a B this year, 54 percent of his students are Hispanic and 95 percent are poor -- both subgroups that need to meet the standards set under No Child Left Behind.

In math, Hispanic students did not meet the standards under No Child Left Behind, coming in below the 38 percent mark in every grade level. Oswald was unsure whether they would meet the "safe harbor" requirement of having improved by 10 percent over last year.

"I'm really confused," Oswald said. "And I'm concerned. It's ironic because my letter grade went up, but I could still be in trouble."