Article published in The Roanoke (VA) Times
As Virginia public schools prepare to start a new year, there’s good news and bad news about their ability to meet the state-prescribed Standards of Learning (SOL).
The good news is that schools are achieving the 70 percent student passing rates required to win full accreditation at a steadily increasing pace – up from a chilling 2 percent the first year the SOL tests were administered, to 7 percent the following year, to 22 percent in 2000. And when complete scores for the Spring 2001 round of testing come out next month, the expectation is that there will be another step up in this progression.
The bad news is that there are public schools in Virginia where students’ average scores in basic subjects began in the pits in 1998 – and have only grown steadily worse.
Third-grade English is a particularly telling snapshot. Students who cannot pass the third-grade SOL tests cannot read proficiently; therefore, their ability to learn during the rest of their school years is limited.
(Parents can see where their schools are heading not just in English but all SOL-tested core subjects by going to the “individual school performance report card” posted for all Virginia public schools at www.pen.k12.va.us. Those without a home computer can gain access with the help of the friendly folks at the local public library. The report cards contain pertinent data about safety, discipline, level of poverty among the students’ families, and average scores on the SOLs year by year. In about a month, an updated report card will feature a fourth year of SOL data.)
Three-year SOL trend lines suggest an educational meltdown in some Richmond elementaries: Clark Springs began with 37 percent of third-graders passing English in 1998, but then dropped to 30 percent, and then to 25 percent in spring of 2000. At Fairfield Court, the passing rate plummeted from 38 percent to 17 percent to 14 percent.
These schools are not isolated examples. There are a dozen schools in the proud old capital city where 70 percent of third-graders cannot read. Patrick Henry, down from 39 percent passing to 26 percent passing; Oak Grove/Bellmeade down from 42 to 24. Maybe the next report card will show a turnaround. Or maybe not.
Where’s the outrage? Who will rescue these children?
Demographics is not destiny. Children can learn to read despite the burdens of poverty or a legacy of racial segregation. Models abound. Look at an inner-city school in Norfolk, Tidewater Park, where almost 90 percent of pupils meet the poverty guidelines to receive subsidized lunches. In the first year of SOL testing, only 6 percent of Tidewater Park third-graders passed English. But by the second year, the passing rate was up to 49 percent, and the following year it was 78 percent – 8 percentage points above the state-required minimum.
It turns out that Tidewater Park was just a harbinger. As the most recent SOL scores come out, Norfolk schools like Roberts Park, Young Park, and St. Helena that are mostly black and low-income are showing eye-popping gains of as much as 50 percentage points. Not all Norfolk schools are succeeding; some still have pass rates as low as 30 percent. Nor are all Richmond schools failing. But a can-do spirit appears to be catching on more in the harbor city than the capital city. That kind of attitude by principals and teachers more than any single magic method or program appears to make the difference.
What to do about schools where such leadership is nowhere in sight? Why not give reformers a chance by strengthening Virginia’s law so that it is easier for teachers, parents, and administrators with a vision to open public charter schools? These are schools that are freed from central-office red tape and allowed to innovate – the catch being that the schools’ organizers must show results or lose their charter.
In states like Michigan and New York, reformers can charter schools directly through universities and get their help. But Virginia’s law – one of the most reform-averse in the nation — gives turf-conscious local school boards an absolute veto over starting charter schools. Not surprisingly, Victory Academy in Gloucester and Blue Ridge Technical Academy in Roanoke are the only two charter schools in the entire state. Hampton University was able to secure school-board approval to open a Charter School for Math, Science, and Technology next year, but if the law provided for multiple chartering authorities, including the universities themselves, such innovative schools could thrive across the state.
Virginia has some of the best universities in the world. Why not enlist their help in turning around failing schools like those in Richmond’s inner city?
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