A school on the edge
Doug Belden, Pioneer Press, December 28, 2009 –
Suburban Carver Elementary has missed federal testing targets for four straight years, and teachers and students are feeling the stress as they strive to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind — and avoid closure.
First in an occasional series: The federal No Child Left Behind law will force decisions about the fates of more and more local schools in coming years, and the Pioneer Press is taking a close look at how one school on the brink of possible closure — Maplewood’s Carver Elementary — is scrambling this year to get test scores up.
Before school on a Friday morning in October, leaders at Carver Elementary in Maplewood are seated around tables in the library talking about how to pull their school back from the brink of closure without running themselves ragged.
You need to focus on your strengths and take care of yourselves, says Jan Pepelnjak, a specialist funded by the state to work with troubled schools. Or else, “you could go 24-7 and nothing you do is really good.”
Yeah, 24-7 is bad, says principal Peter Olson-Skog. “20-7, maybe,” he jokes.
The clock is ticking at Carver, which has missed federal testing targets for four straight years and finds itself a year or two from potential closure.
The suburban school’s predicament is a sign the No Child Left Behind law is starting to have real-life effects in Minnesota beyond the core cities.
Already, nearly half the schools in the state are failing to make “adequate yearly progress” — known as AYP — and the standards will continue to rise toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014.
“This will happen to lots and lots and lots of schools,” said Olson-Skog, 35, a bearded, mild-mannered former district administrator who’s in his first year as a school principal.
Minnesota faces the prospect of “good and great schools shutting down, good and great staffs breaking emotionally,” he said.
At Carver, the staff is running around like a death-row lawyer filing appeal after appeal to stay execution, and Olson-Skog invited the Pioneer Press to spend the year watching the process up close.
“We don’t have the luxury of time anymore,” he said.
FEELING THE STRESS
On the wall in the main office at Carver is a newspaper photo of second-grade teacher Christine Mulcare competing in a triathlon.
The self-described “gym rat” missed all of her workouts in October, she said, because of new commitments at school.
Teachers are coming in early to provide “targeted services” to struggling students, and Mulcare is also on the school’s leadership team, which meets before classes.
Unlike a race, there is no finish line in education, and it’s harder to know whether the things you’re doing are going to lead to good results.
Inside the one-story, yellow-brick building that abuts Battle Creek Regional Park and has a pleasant aroma of apples inside, the mood at Carver seems to swing between despair and hope.
The 20 classroom teachers and 44 other staff members are feeling the stress.
Over her 12 years at Carver, Mulcare said, more and more has been put on teachers’ plates. At this point, “I feel like I’m carrying a platter,” she said.
Mulcare sees the toll on fellow teachers — it’s in their faces and the way they carry themselves. “I notice the tension. I notice the stress. I notice the urgency,” she said.
At a December “fun committee” party planned to lighten the mood, Mulcare and another teacher break down when talking about Carver, as did another the day before.
There have been many teary days this trimester, she said.
“We will rally, and we’ll be successful,” Mulcare said. “I know we will.”
Teachers “are doing every single thing they can” but the school is still seen as failing, said literacy specialist Melissa Sonnek.
“It’s hard not to personalize it,” she said. “It keeps us awake at night.”
“It feels like we’re doing the work we’re supposed to be doing,” said Karen Mueller, who teaches special education and oversees the intervention programs for struggling students. “I don’t know if it’s enough.”
She added: “If any school can do it, we can do it.”
Olson-Skog has been telling the staff the story of Carver this year will be like the story of Rocky Balboa, the upstart boxer in the movies who triumphs in the end.
Mulcare says right now, it feels like the early rounds. “Rocky got the crap beat out of him till he was successful,” she said.
‘HOW IS THAT A FAIR SYSTEM?’
“Here’s the story,” said Olson-Skog.
He’s pointing to a white board in his office on which he has written the four years the school has missed AYP and the specific student subgroups that missed the mark each year.
Take low-income students in math, he says. The school came up short with that group in 2006 and 2007, but the last two years has made it.
So that means the school targeted a struggling group and brought them up to standard, but the federal government says it’s failing because other groups slipped.
“How is that a fair system?” he asked.
Olson-Skog doesn’t dispute the need to hold schools accountable.
At his school and in the entire North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, “You will be called to the carpet if your school does not perform,” he said.
But the evaluation needs to be done more fairly — maybe penalizing schools only if they miss with the same subgroup of kids in the same subject for two or more years, he said.
With No Child Left Behind, schools can get off track in a variety of ways, and once they slip, it’s harder and harder to climb to safety.
And because states set their own standards for what constitutes proficiency under No Child Left Behind and Minnesota’s standards are among the highest in the nation, we’ll have schools closing in this state that would be doing fine elsewhere, he said.
Carver’s struggles are partly due to the enrollment of more students from groups that, statistically, present the greatest educational challenges.
A decade ago, one in five Carver students was from a low-income home and virtually all grew up speaking English.
Today, two of every five are from low-income homes. The minority population has grown to 36 percent — in a school where 100 percent of the teaching staff is white. And 12 percent have limited English proficiency.
Carver has just enough students in these subgroups to “count” under Minnesota guidelines. It also has enough poverty to qualify for federal Title 1 aid, which means it faces real-life consequences for missing AYP that could include leadership changes, staff reorganization, program replacement or closure.
To make the challenge seem less daunting to his staff, Olson-Skog has broken the data down to the actual number of students they need to move to proficiency in each category to make AYP.
So of the 21 Hispanic students in grades 3, 4 and 5 who he projects won’t make proficiency in reading, for example, only six would have to make it for the subgroup as a whole to clear the bar.
The temptation in a case like this, and the practice in some buildings, is to target the handful of kids right on the bubble and work like crazy to get them to pass.
“I would rather not make AYP than have that strategy,” Olson-Skog said. “We give more support to the kids who are further behind.”
HOURS OF MATH PER DAY
So instead of an intense focus on the bubble kids, the strategy for the year is a mix of three main goals and at least seven supplementary efforts.
The three big goals are:
Make sure lessons are tied tightly to state standards.
Improve vocabulary instruction.
Bump up math teaching in classrooms and in pull-out sessions for struggling learners.
The math program involves pre- and post-testing students on concepts in a way that aims to provide targeted instruction by ability and also get them gradually accustomed to the format used on the state test.
The “flexible grouping” being tried this year at Carver was used last year at Oakdale Elementary, which wound up making AYP, so there’s reason for hope.
But the new math focus means low-performing students could be getting as much as 2 1/2 hours of math a day, not counting after-school tutoring.
“We got math 24-7!” one girl complains on the first day of flexible grouping.
“We’re working you hard. The teachers are working hard. But it’s because we need to,” says fifth-grade teacher Karen VanDenEinde.
Sonnek says the staff is committed to going flat-out to achieve its goal.
“There’s a sense of urgency here that is at a level I’ve never seen professionally,” she said.
If Carver doesn’t make AYP, “I think we would feel like we’re letting parents and students down, and letting the community down,” said math specialist Kate Russeth.
“We’re all just waiting for March to come, and then for the results to come.”
Doug Belden can be reached at 651-228-5136.
Student demographics: 64 percent white, 13 percent black, 12 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic; 38 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, 12 percent have limited English proficiency, 9 percent are in special education.
History: Founded in 1894 as Carver Lake Elementary. At current site as Carver Elementary since 1960.
Status: In “corrective action” under federal accountability guidelines, meaning it has missed testing targets four years in a row. If it misses again this spring, it will need to prepare to restructure, with restructuring the following year.