Rural educators say new law not feasible in Bush

Posted: Monday, September 09, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- School administrators say a new national law seeking to improve student performance wasn't designed to tackle the difficulties educators face in the Bush.

Educators across the United States are working to meet mandates contained in the No Child Left Behind Act, a national initiative meant to identify and improve schools whose students consistently score low on standardized tests.

A dozen schools in rural Alaska are deemed to be failing.

''Schools just have to do better. I don't think anyone disagrees with the intent,'' said Sandra Kowalski of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. ''But the implementation part of the law is challenging.''

Bob Robertson, superintendent of the Lower Yukon School District, was more blunt in his assessment. ''It's not feasible at all,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News. ''When they were putting together this piece of legislation, they obviously weren't thinking about rural Alaska.''

President Bush campaigned on the 1,250-page act and signed it into law last January. It is the most comprehensive education act in history, said Harry Gamble, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Childhood Development.

The new law requires so-called Title I schools -- those with a high percentage of students from low-income families -- to undergo an annual progress report. Schools eventually will be examined at several grade levels, but for this first year, progress was based on standardized tests of fourth-graders. For statistical purposes, only schools with at least 10 fourth-graders were scored.

In Alaska, 12 schools, all in rural areas, failed to meet the minimum standard. If scores don't rise, the schools face increasing sanctions every year. Within four years, administrators could be replaced and schools reorganized.

With a few exceptions, the bill does not provide any more money to fix the problems. Schools are required to shift existing resources in ways that raise test scores.

Parental choice is one of the most widely touted elements of No Child Left Behind. Students at failing schools can choose to attend another. In rural Alaska, attending a different school isn't feasible, Gamble said. Many towns and villages have just one school.

As an alternative, the new law requires failing schools to provide supplemental programs to boost test scores. Alaska is looking at after-school enrichment programs, summer school and tutors, Gamble said.

In a city, after-school or weekend programs are available through businesses such as Sylvan Learning Centers or organizations like Boys and Girls Club. In most of rural Alaska, those don't exist.

Earlier this summer the state education department sought proposals to deliver supplemental services to Akiachak, New Stuyahok and the other failing schools. But only nine organizations responded, eight of which were deemed unacceptable, said Eric Madsen, the department's Title I administrator.

A second request for supplemental services has been issued, he said, but it looks like Alaska will have to develop a hybrid, such as offering instruction delivered via the Internet or video, with local coaches.

The new law is on the agenda when the Alaska Board of Education meets in Anchorage on Sept. 28, Madsen said.

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