By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
While the politicians, education advocates and the media continue to debate the validity of the federal government’s Adequate Yearly Progress rating system and the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts and individual campuses in Texas are left to deal with the consequences of being labeled as failing schools just weeks before a new school year begins.
More than 70 percent of the state’s public and charter school districts failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards in the 2011-12 school year, according to a report from the Texas Education Agency.
When a district or individual campus fails to meet its AYP goal for two consecutive years, it is identified as in need of improvement, which carries a number of requirements and sanctions.
“The requirements for a school in improvement are different depending on what stage they are at,” said Jackie Lain, the associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards. “They begin with requiring, among other things, that the district provide assistance to students in the areas where they did not meet AYP, and set out a plan for improvement.”
This year, the number of districts designated to be in various stages of improvement increased from 248 in the 2010-11 school year, to 513.
The increase for Texas schools is even higher, growing from 239 to 1,159.
Locally, the Killeen, Copperas Cove and Belton school districts were all designated stage one for school improvement.
Under federal requirements, those districts will have to develop or revise a detailed improvement plan, which uses research-based methods to identify and address areas for improvement. The plan, which must also detail specific actions the district will take to improve performance, must be completed within the next three months.
Of the three districts, only Killeen has a specific school also identified as stage one, Willow Springs Elementary.
As part of the stage one requirements, the district mailed more than 857 letters to Willow Springs parents notifying them of the school’s designation, explaining what that means for the school and its students.
One of the requirements is that Willow Springs parents now have the option to send their children to another school that meets Adequate Yearly Progress, said Teresa Daugherty, director of academic assessment and accountability for the Killeen Independent School District.
According to the district’s letter, students will be able to transfer to East Ward or Fowler elementary schools this year, and the district will provide transportation.
Similar to the district-level requirements, the school also must develop an improvement plan, which will be created with the help of the school’s staff, the district and parents within the next three months. In the upcoming year, the district also must make regular reports to the federal department of education, Daugherty said.
Lain said that while the stage one requirements will mean more paperwork and possibly higher transportation costs for school districts, the prospects of facing even harsher sanctions if they fail to make AYP again is more worrisome.
As districts move into the later stages of improvement designation, the consequences range from implementing new curriculum and reducing administrative funds to firing and replacing staff members. For campuses, the most severe consequences include firing most or all of the staff and leadership, and even instituting an “alternative governance” system, which could be anything from reopening the campus as a charter school or bringing in a private company to manage it.
“It can get pretty ugly,” Lain said. She said that Texas districts would likely see even more campuses designated for school improvement next fall, mainly because the percentage of students who must make Adequate Yearly Progress is raised each year.
Hard to break cycle
For the 2012-13 school year, Texas districts will need to have more than 90 percent of their students meet the AYP standards in math and English/language arts. The following year, the number rises to 100 percent.
“It’s going to be very difficult for districts and schools to get out of improvement cycle,” Lain said.
To pull themselves out of the cycle, districts like Killeen and schools like Willow Springs must hit the rising AYP targets. As it stands, the AYP system can label a school as “failing” if it shows improvement in an area, but still misses its overall target in a single curriculum area or student sub-group.
“It’s hard when you have the teachers and kids working so hard, and making improvements,” said Daugherty, speaking at a recent Killeen school board meeting. “To get a label that says ‘you failed’ is unacceptable to me.”
Lain agreed, and said an accountability system should reward improvement, not ignore it.
“That is the travesty; (Adequate Yearly Progress) doesn’t hold anyone up or acknowledge those that show improvement,” she said. “If you do not celebrate and reward success, even incremental success, it’s very disheartening to think that is part of what the education community is experiencing right now.”