September 24 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Five Things to Know: If you stay in a school that is “needing improvement”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the Philadelphia School District is now required to offer the option of transferring into a higher-scoring school to all students enrolled at 196 of the schools that the state has labeled "needing improvement."

But in a district where few schools – public or charter – meet or exceed state standards, not many thriving alternatives really exist.

For the thousands of families who remain in these schools deemed "needing improvement," here are five things to consider.

1. Your school is not alone.

Almost half of all Pennsylvania public schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on improving reading and math scores this year, the state’s Department of Education reports.

According to the weekly Education Week, many states have reported large numbers of schools that don’t measure up to state standards. These standards and the proportion of schools that achieve them vary enormously from state to state, with non-compliance figures as large as 87 percent in Florida.

2. The ‘needing improvement’ label sometimes overshadows signs of progress.

In 2002, parents at McClure Elementary were among the first to be offered the choice to transfer to another school under the NCLB mandate, when District officials picked ten schools "needing improvement" to pilot its school choice program.

According to Dolores Shaw, an active Home and School Council parent whose two children attended McClure, this sanction came at a time when the efforts of dedicated staff and parents working together had begun to result in increased student achievement.

"It gave the wrong perception," says Shaw, who points out that the District had just lauded McClure’s principal as a model administrator.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Vicki Phillips agrees that a ‘failing’ label can often be "an unfair designation" that distorts a school’s overall profile.

3. You may be eligible for free after-school tutoring.

This year, any student who is performing below grade level will be required to attend the District’s Extended Day program in reading and math, which will be offered at all 176 elementary and middle schools and to 9th graders at all high schools starting October 20.

The District’s implementation of the NCLB law makes students enrolled in the 196 ‘choice’ schools eligible to receive "supplemental education services."

Students at 160 "Corrective Action" District schools are eligible for free tutoring by a state-approved educational provider in addition to Extended Day.

Philadelphia residents can choose from 51 approved providers, 22 of which are located in the Philadelphia area.

4. The District is implementing a series of new academic reforms.

Key changes for the 2003-04 school year include reduced class size in primary grades, standardized reading and math curricula, longer blocks for literacy and math, and mandatory summer school for low-achieving students, District officials say.

To allow time for more professional development, schools will begin dismissals two hours early for all students every other Friday starting September 19. Schools will offer extracurricular activities for students during this time, CEO Vallas says.

5. Openings for parental involvement are emerging.

District officials say they want to have an active parent group at every school, and parent organizations are working toward that goal as well.

"It’s not about baking cupcakes any more," said Patricia Raymond, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the umbrella group for parent associations in Philadelphia. Raymond says Home and School Associations are focusing on getting out information, identifying parent needs, and taking action to improve education.

"We want parents to have a say in the school improvement planning process and the school budget," says Raymond, who adds that a priority this fall is working with the District to establish new parent help desks at all elementary schools. Call Home and School Council at 215-299-7211 for information.

In some neighborhoods, community organizations have been bringing together parents to organize around their concerns at schools. Two such groups are ACORN (call 215-765-0042) and the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, or EPOP (215-634-8922).

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