Bad (and not getting better) . . .

Sun Oct 28 12:40:54 EDT 2007

Parts of rural Mississippi may as well be on another planet. They are at a 
level of poverty that most representatives find hard to deal with, so they 
pretend it doesn't exist.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Dick Waterman" <>
Sent: Sunday, October 28, 2007 10:53 AM
Subject: Bad (and not getting better) . . .

> The blues content is that Como was the home of Fred McDowell and Jesse Mae
> Hemphill . . .
>                                   ************************
> By the Mississippi Delta, A Whole School Left Behind
> By Peter Whoriskey
> Washington Post Staff Writer
> Sunday, October 28, 2007; A03
> COMO, Miss. -- Of all the nation's elementary schools, the one serving 
> this
> poor, rural crossroads is at the bottom of the heap.
> Its math and reading test scores ranked at the bottom in Mississippi last
> year, and Mississippi, in turn, ranked last among the states.
> "We're just light-years behind," said Versa Brown, the school's new
> principal.
> Como Elementary is, in other words, just the sort of school that was 
> supposed
> to benefit from the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which is up for
> reauthorization by Congress.
> But in Como and other poor, rural districts around the country, the law's
> regimen of testing and sanctions has had little, if any, effect.
> Despite abysmal test scores, Como earned a passing grade under No Child 
> Left
> Behind, largely because the standards of student proficiency, which are
> determined individually by the states, have been set so low in 
> Mississippi. Its
> small size also exempts it from some standards. The resulting passing 
> grade -- it
> makes "adequate yearly progress" -- has exempted Como Elementary from any 
> of
> the corrective actions dictated by the law.
> But the more fundamental difficulty, administrators said, is that while 
> the
> law requires schools to have "highly qualified teachers," places such as 
> Como
> face critical difficulties in attracting any teachers at all. The location 
> is
> remote, the salaries are low, and its at-risk students are arguably more
> difficult to teach.
> More than a third of Como's 32 teachers are new this year, and five of 
> those
> have been hired with an "emergency license" because they lack full teacher
> training. At least three of the new teachers had been dismissed or 
> released from
> other schools. One resigned after just a few weeks when he was found 
> hiding
> from the third-graders in his class who were throwing papers at him.
> "Has No Child Left Behind done some good things? Sure," said the state's
> superintendent of schools, Hank Bounds. "But in many places like the 
> Mississippi
> Delta, I would have to say no."
> He rejected the notion that raising test standards -- without somehow
> persuading legions of motivated teachers to move in -- would help 
> students.
> "It's easy to put your bow tie on every day and say, 'If Mississippi would
> just do X then you would see Y results,' " he said.
> As Congress this fall begins considering the reauthorization of No Child 
> Left
> Behind, at least some of the law's effects on places such as Como 
> Elementary
> are being rethought. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House
> committee overseeing the reauthorization, said the law should help states 
> recruit
> teachers and give them incentives to develop stronger standards.
> "Unless we do those two things, it's going to be very difficult to provide
> kids with the quality of education they deserve," he said.
> On the edge of the Mississippi Delta about 45 minutes south of Memphis, 
> Como
> is a small town surrounded by fields. Its downtown consists of a strip of 
> old
> brick storefronts, some empty, facing a railroad track. A rusted water 
> tower
> hovers in the distance.
> About 25 percent or more of the population is white, but only a handful of
> whites -- about 1 percent -- attend the public schools. Many instead 
> attend
> Magnolia Heights, a private academy.
> Como Elementary's student body is 99 percent black, and most of the 
> students
> live in poverty, many in tattered mobile homes.
> Some teachers have to buy books and other basic supplies for their
> classrooms, and then take their neediest students to Wal-Mart to buy 
> clothes and
> backpacks. Last week, a teacher gave an old clothes dryer to a grandmother 
> who kept
> sending a student to school in wet clothes. The school itself could use a 
> coat
> of paint and new linoleum floors, which have been worn through in places 
> to
> the concrete.
> Challenged by poverty, indifferent parents and transient teacher ranks, 
> Como
> Elementary scored dismally on Mississippi's annual school tests.
> According to the government tests known as the National Assessment of
> Educational Progress, or the "Nation's Report Card," Mississippi ranks 
> last among
> states in combined math and reading scores for fourth-graders, the only
> elementary grade in the survey.
> And within Mississippi, Como sits at the bottom for test scores. The 
> combined
> reading and math scores for grades two through six -- the earliest grades 
> are
> not tested -- were among the bottom three in the state.
> The state as a result recognizes Como as a "low-performing school."
> Yet under No Child Left Behind, Como Elementary is considered to be making
> "adequate yearly progress" because enough of its students have 
> demonstrated
> "proficiency" -- a standard that the state itself gets to define, and has 
> done so
> at a very low level.
> A report by the Education Trust is telling: While the state has judged 
> that
> 89 percent of its fourth-graders are reading proficiently, the federal 
> tests
> assert that only 18 percent are.
> "There are clearly some state tests that are too easy," said John Cronin, 
> a
> researcher at the Northwest Evaluation Association and co-author of a 
> recent
> paper on the subject called "The Proficiency Illusion."
> Como Elementary's small size also makes it easier to get a passing grade
> under the law. The law requires measures of proficiency not just from the 
> school
> as a whole but also from each of its "subgroups" -- such as low-income
> students, the disabled, Hispanics and African Americans. But if a subgroup 
> at a
> Mississippi school has fewer than 40 students in it, the standards do not 
> apply -- 
> an exemption that particularly benefits small schools.
> Faced with criticism over its testing standards, Mississippi is planning 
> to
> raise them next year.
> But a tougher standard will not resolve the challenge of attracting the
> "highly qualified teachers" -- with a bachelor's degree and demonstrated
> proficiency in class subject matter -- that places such as Como 
> desperately need, Bounds
> and others argue.
> The nature of the work -- bringing disadvantaged children up to speed --  
> is
> arguably more difficult, while the pay is less. Nearby jurisdictions, such 
> as
> Memphis, pay roughly 30 percent more for teachers, and Mississippi cities 
> that
> have casinos can also afford to pay far more than Como's district.
> Some good teachers come anyway. "I know somebody has to stay here," said
> Chiquitha Rosemon, 31, a second-grade teacher whose students last year 
> fared well
> on the tests. "You have to love the children."
> "Some of the kids come in here and don't even know how to hold a book," 
> said
> Lauren LaVergne, a first-grade teacher. "They hold it upside down, or they
> read it from the back to the front. They just haven't ever been read to."
> Other teachers arrive at Como because they could not make the teacher exam
> scores required in Tennessee, or because they have failed elsewhere. 
> Several
> struggle just to maintain order. Their students slump in chairs. Some seem 
> to
> doze off. Some puff out their cheeks to make rapping sounds and shimmy in 
> their
> seats. Principal Brown peered through the doorway of one classroom and 
> watched
> the teacher doing paperwork as the kids romped.
> One of the new teachers hushed his first-grade class over and over during 
> a
> fill-in-the-blanks exercise.
> "Those people who are talking are not going to know what to do," he 
> warned.
> Several times, he motioned for quiet. Soon he began his warning count. 
> "One.
> . . . Two. . . . There are a lot of people who are going to get their 
> cards
> full. . . . Three."
> Later, he said frankly that the districts in Tennessee, where he lives, 
> were
> "too picky" to give him a job.
> Como wasn't.
> Brown offers her own biography as a parable of what can happen without, 
> and
> with, an education.
> A native of the Delta, she dropped out of high school at 17 and began life 
> as
> a fieldworker. She cut tobacco in North Carolina and picked celery in 
> Florida
> and cotton in Mississippi. Then she worked as a prison guard.
> At 33, she decided to go back to school, earning straight A's and graduate
> degrees.
> Now, she said, she isn't waiting for No Child Left Behind to make a
> difference.
> To pique the interest of parents, she has invited them to school 
> breakfasts
> -- "If you say free food, they'll come," she said. Every Sunday she goes 
> to a
> local church to plead for community support. She is arranging to have 
> state
> prison inmates paint the school. She has even written to actor Morgan 
> Freeman and
> talk show host Oprah Winfrey for help.
> Some aid has already arrived. The Barksdale Reading Institute, funded with
> $100 million from Netscape founder Jim Barksdale, last year placed two 
> teachers
> at the school who run a remedial reading program.
> "We know we can do better," Brown said. "And if it takes my last breath, 
> we
> will."
> **************************************
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