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Two Schools Must Offer Choice

Dogwood Elementary in Reston and McNair Elementary in Herndon are the only two county schools required to offer school choice.

For Reston resident Luanne Grabski, the choice to keep her daughter at Dogwood Elementary was an easy one.

"When I got that letter in the mail telling me Dogwood has to offer school choice, I ripped it up," she said. "Dogwood is outstanding."

Dogwood, along with McNair Elementary in Herndon, are the only two schools in Fairfax County required to offer their students a choice to transfer to another elementary school.

Not everyone appears to agree with Grabski. So far, parents have requested that 15 students leave Dogwood. At McNair, parents have asked that at least 73 students be allowed to transfer.

Dogwood and McNair were sanctioned under the No Child Left Behind Act because they failed to meet student achievement benchmarks two years in a row. Both schools did not meet the benchmarks because too few poor students passed the state's standardized English test.

The schools are held more accountable than the majority of other schools because they have a high percentage of poor students and receive federal Title I funds.

If the two schools do not pass the benchmarks next year, the schools will be required to replace staff members, implement a new curriculum, hire outside experts to help boost scores and restructure the school's internal organization.

And next year, the bar will be raised even higher, with 70 percent of all students required to pass math and English tests. This year, only 59 percent of the students needed to pass the math test and 61 percent needed to pass the English test.

But clearing those hurdles will be more difficult for Dogwood and McNair because the students who are leaving are, almost without fail, among the highest-performing students at the two schools.

"Under No Child Left Behind, I don't want to say we're doomed, but we're certainly stuck," said Grabski, who has served on Dogwood's PTA for almost a decade.

McNAIR'S PRINCIPAL, Susan Benezra, said her school has made significant improvements over last year and that it is unfair No Child Left Behind has slapped her school with such a harsh sanction.

"Unfortunately, there is just this one little group that didn't do as well as we would have liked," she said.

In addition to the poor students who did not pass the English test, scores were also low at both the schools for black students and students with disabilities. However, because there were fewer than 50 students in those demographic groups, the low scores did not affect the school's overall grade.

Ricki Harvey, Dogwood's principal, also said her school is improving and that the test results are giving teacher's good information about who needs the most help.

"We have to get better, but we were so close," Harvey said.

Both schools already offer an extensive range of services intended to boost student achievement — everything ranging from after-school homework programs to smaller class sizes.

The schools are re-evaluating what has worked and what has not. For example, Harvey said an after-school remediation program might have burned out struggling students, having come to school early in the morning and not leaving until 5:30 p.m.

At McNair, Benezra is bringing in outside experts to help train her teachers in raising student test scores. Also, Benezra said McNair's student's will be tested every month to ensure progress is being made.

BENEZRA POINTED out that although 73 students might seem like a lot, it mirrors national statistics that indicate 7 percent of eligible students decide to transfer out of "failing" schools.

"In the scheme of things, out of 1,000 children, 73 is really not that many," she said.

And though students are leaving both schools, more parents and students have come to their schools' defense, saying they get more attention at Dogwood and McNair and have access to better programs made possible by the Title I funding.

"I have never seen such a caring group of educators at McNair, I kid you not," said Verna Hill, a mother of a sixth-grade student at the school. "Especially at McNair, those teachers have a real love of their students."

Mujahid Hussain, father of a second-grade student at McNair, said he considered sending his son to another school, but decided his son is happy where he is and that it's wrong to give up on the school.

"Let's work on making this school better rather than taking the easy way out," he said.

WHILE PART of the problem is the less-than-ideal student achievement at Dogwood and McNair, another major cause of the schools' troubles can be found in the No Child Left Behind law and in the state-mandated Standards of Learning tests, both principals said.

No Child Left Behind requires all students to perform at or above mandated levels. For schools like Dogwood and McNair, which both have a high percentage of poor and immigrant students, meeting those benchmarks can prove exceedingly difficult.

The language barrier, Harvey said, led to lower test scores with many of Dogwood's students in the black and low-income student groups. Many of Dogwood's black students, she said, are African immigrants.

Benezra echoed that complaint, saying it is absurd to expect recent immigrants or students with disabilities to perform at such high levels.

"To get an autistic child or a child with a severe mental disability to even sit and take the test is an accomplishment," she said.

Harvey, who was recently named Virginia's Distinguished Principal of the Year, said it hurts to be sanctioned under No Child Left Behind, but she will continue to push her staff and students to perform increasingly better.

"We've made huge gains," she said. "That's what's so hard about this. It's like all those gains and all those SOL scores are not portrayed by this. But we've got the tools and we've got the resources. Now we know where the problems are and we're going to fix them."