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Column

Progress is more than what tests can show

By ANDREW SKERRITT, Times Columnist
Published August 19, 2007


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As the principal and staff at West Hernando Middle School gear up for the new school year, the excitement on campus is tainted by a hint of disappointment, even uncertainty.

The school, which has received A's from the state, got a failing grade from the feds for the fifth straight year.

The problem, everyone agrees, is the method used to test more than two dozen special needs students. The federal government doesn't care about the test Florida uses. And its opinion counts.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must show adequate yearly progress among all student groups, including minority, low-income and special needs students.

But how do you accurately measure the academic progress of students with cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and autism?

How can a school consistently get A's from one agency and still be considered a failure?

Confused?

This summer, West Hernando Middle principal Joe Clifford has spent a lot of time on the phone with officials in Tallahassee and Washington. He's trying to get his school out of academic purgatory.

The stakes are high for him and his staff. He could be removed, the school reorganized and/or taken over by the state.

But more important is the fate of the students. West Hernando Middle is a low-income "center school" charged with educating some of Hernando County's most severely medically and developmentally handicapped middle school students. Other schools get special ed kids, but West Hernando has those with cerebral palsy, autism, Down's syndrome.

It's a responsibility that Clifford and his staff won't back down from. He points to successes like Kyle Chapman, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy. Kyle, who heads to Central High this fall, uses a wheelchair and can't speak but communicates with his eyes and by facial expressions. During his four years at West Hernando, he had the chance to work with nondisabled schoolmates doing science and history projects. Kyle has gone with his classmates to football games and the movies, much to the delight of his parents.

"They've allowed my child to be as close to being a normal teenager as he will ever be," said Terry Chapman, Kyle's dad.

Unfortunately, Kyle's growth isn't the kind of progress that No Child Left Behind measures.

The law is up for reauthorization this fall. Many educators would prefer to see it die or be radically changed.

Meanwhile, Clifford and his staff are doing their best to comply while they celebrate the little victories. They're not necessarily the kind the feds will measure as they consider "adequate yearly progress."

But that doesn't mean they're any less important.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 18, 2007, 23:06:21]


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