The Brink of Failure 

No Child Left Behind has Allendale Elementary on the hotplate. And now the worse news: There are about to be a lot more Allendales.

When only two kids came to her class on April 8, Oakland fifth-grade teacher Laura Prival had to think fast. Short 25 students, she modified her lesson plan and tried not to be distracted by the parents rallying outside Allendale Elementary. As a result of their boycott -- called to protest teacher transfers and other changes mostly related to Allendale's dismal test scores -- just 66 of 450 students attended school that day.

"What's happening to our school?" Prival asks, her pale face framed by oval glasses and wavy shoulder-length brown hair. "This is not what I had in mind when I went through my teacher credential program -- it's just gone off the deep end."

Allendale, located in the Fruitvale district, is one of thirteen Oakland elementary schools targeted for a makeover after years of substandard performance on standardized tests. Last November, minutes before the final bell, Principal Steven Thomasberger got on the PA and told teachers to check their mailboxes for a letter from the district regarding the No Child Left Behind Act. The letter listed five options for failing schools, whose students had not met federal proficiency standards in math and English for six years running.

Compounding the frustration of parents and teachers is that Allendale almost pulled it off. It ranked highest among the thirteen low-scoring schools, and its numbers have improved yearly since No Child Left Behind took effect. In 2004, it reached its marks in 23 of 25 categories -- English proficiency in black and Hispanic subgroups fell short by a few tenths of a percentage point. But since the school needed to pass every category, those tenths of a point sealed Allendale's fate. "Test scores say something for sure, but they don't give the full picture," Prival laments. "We've definitely been told we're a failing school, but there's a feeling that we're not a failure. We're achieving; we're trying to make sure kids are literate and can ultimately get the jobs they want. That's our goal. It's hard to do that when you're labeled a failure."

The angst Allendale feels now will soon extend to many more schools districtwide and throughout the state. Last year, federal law dictated that nearly 14 percent of elementary- and middle-school students in various ethnic and socioeconomic categories must show proficiency in English, 16 percent in math. By next fall, when results from current tests come back, 24-plus percent of the kids must be proficient in English and 26.5 percent in math. No Child Left Behind continues to raise the requirements until, by 2014, every student must be proficient in English and math for schools to retain federal antipoverty funding.

In a state with California's demographics, that goal sounds like a pipe dream. "This is the part that's really incredulous to many of us," says Gary Yee, president of the Oakland Unified school board. "To reach proficiency by the year 2014, that's the real challenge for people thinking about public education."

Yee, also a dean at Merritt College, was born in East Oakland and graduated from Castlemont High; he was a teacher and principal in Oakland schools for more than twenty years. He notes that California uses tests that are more demanding than those used by many states (Texas, for one), and cites Oakland's relative poverty, its large number of immigrant families, and high staff attrition as the district's main educational challenges. Allendale faces all of them: Last school year, more than 60 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly half were designated "English language learners."

The pending staff turnover, however, wasn't voluntary. Because the school had shown improvement, and because teachers submitted a letter in January seeking permission to participate in restructuring, the district granted Allendale some leeway. Administrators decided teachers could be involved, and that changes could come from within. The teachers began meeting amongst themselves and with the principal after school and on weekends to brainstorm ways to raise test scores and transform the school. They tutored students during their breaks and lunch hours. They organized events, like Crazy Science Night, to involve families and make learning fun.

Then the ax fell. In March, Principal Thomasberger -- who started at Allendale in September but has worked in high-poverty schools in Oakland for twelve years -- conducted a staff "temperature taking" to hear ideas and determine whom he'd work with come fall. The four-question interview lasted fifteen minutes.

"About two weeks later, I was called into his office," recalls Susan Canzoneri, who has taught second grade at Allendale for six years and has spent the last thirteen working in California inner-city schools. On Thomasberger's desk were transfer papers, she says, and without further explanation he asked Canzoneri to read and sign them. "It really makes me sad to be leaving," she says. "One of the things you enjoy most about a school when you're there a long time is you get to know the kids. ... It makes you more effective in knowing what to say to them, knowing their families. If I start at a new school next year, I'll only know the little group in my classroom."

Canzoneri was among seven teachers -- one-third of the teaching staff -- the principal is transferring to other schools come fall. Some had already planned to leave, Thomasberger says. But the move inspired a boycott nonetheless. "The principal didn't look at the impact on the children of losing seven teachers," explains Alisa Williams, who has a son in third grade at Allendale, and helped organize the walkout. "In Oakland ... it's a system set up for them to fail. I have children in elementary school, middle school, and high school. I'm witnessing it in my own household."

Thomasberger says he can sympathize, but adds that he believes the boycott -- which cost Allendale $9,000 in enrollment-based funding -- was misguided. "If you've got a losing team, you've got to change players," he says. "Under NCLB, it basically says you have to make program changes."

Katrina Scott-George, special assistant to State Administrator Randolph Ward, says the act's "major restructuring" option for failing schools could technically be satisfied by an overhaul of the curriculum, provided the teaching lineup fits that vision. But with proficiency standards skyrocketing, Allendale needed to do more. "They still have to make significant gains next year," she says. "So we wanted to make sure that whatever plan they came up with is bold enough to achieve those gains -- and that includes staff changes."

Thomasberger considers the transfers necessary, given the mandate for rapid transformation. But Yee has his doubts: "No Child Left Behind believes drastic changes can produce those improvements," he says. "Most of us are fairly skeptical."

Fellow skeptic Monty Neill is executive director of Fair Test, an organization that has been researching testing in public schools since 1987. According to Neill, schools that test low get stuck in a cycle that brings increased dropout rates. "When students score lower, schools intensify the amount of test preparation; they cut science, history, art, recess," he says. "It becomes a narrow, limited education. You end up in a kind of vicious cycle -- failure leads to more test preparation leads to more failure." He also doubts drastic staff changes are the answer: "It's very clear that a school may be coherent, may be improving, may be doing well by a lot of children, yet it still fails to meet Annual Yearly Progress [requirements]. It ends up at the year-four stage facing pretty dire consequences. If you have a coherent group of teachers willing to work for improvement, it's probably a bad idea to break it up."

Ultimately, the argument is about whether major overhauls or incremental changes are the better route to improve education. Both sides, however, agree the feds aren't providing enough money. "We don't want to leave any child behind either," Thomasberger says. "But you have to understand the cost. You can't just mandate all this stuff and then not back it up with a lot of money. In some ways, I'm sort of like the face of George Bush -- I am the closest [parents and teachers] are going to get to be able to criticize this policy."

Math and English testing began anew last week throughout the district. If Allendale comes up short of the new requirements, its entire staff, including Thomasberger, may be replaced by fall 2006. With the past four months consumed by policy shifts and staff confusion, it would be a near-miracle if Allendale succeeds. "Sometimes we look back and say that decision was tough but needed," Yee says. "Other times we look back and say, that's been the disintegration of the school. There is no guarantee that this leads to improvement. I'm compelled to stand on the sidelines and watch."

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