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School forum puts focus on flexibility
Officials listen to suggestions on No Child Left Behind.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published September 14, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - Kathleen Zagaros came to the meeting with a simple message: Don't look at all kids the same when assessing their academic skills.
It's just not fair, especially to children with special needs, the Wesley Chapel mother of twin boys told representatives of the state and federal departments of education.
"Their cognitive problems really preclude them from taking the test in the proper way," Zagaros said during a Wednesday evening forum on No Child Left Behind, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite.
Zagaros used her sons as an example. Both attend special education classes for learning disabilities. In third grade, one barely passed the FCAT, while the other didn't come close and was retained.
"My son's self esteem is so poor. His twin brother went to middle school and he was left behind. It's so unfair," Zagaros told the panel. "Children shouldn't have to repeat the whole grade. They should be remediated in what they are lacking."
Others in the audience of about 80 parents and educators shared her views as they offered their insights into how the federal accountability law should be changed as Congress reviews it for possible reauthorization.
Linda McAllister, a Pasco special education teacher, worried that even if schools are assessed on student gains that the lowest performing children with special needs will still be considered "failures."
You can move a child from first-grade achievement to the third-grade level, she said, but if they're supposed to be at fourth-grade, it won't be good enough.
"We know we want them to be here, but we want to celebrate the growth along the way," McAllister said.
It's not that educators want to walk away from the accountability model, Pasco special education director Monica Verra said. They just want the flexibility to be able to look at individual children's abilities, perhaps with alternate or modified tests, rather than use the one-size-fits-all FCAT exam, she said.
The message was not lost on the government officials, who took copious notes that they said would bolster their recommendations on how to move ahead with No Child Left Behind.
"We don't want to assess their disability," Florida deputy chancellor Pam Smith said at one point. "We want to assess what they've learned."
Other perspectives came through in addition to those regarding special education.
Teacher Robert Marsh criticized any move to add performance pay to the mix.
"If you force me to compete with my colleagues, I will never collaborate," he said. "Pay us fairly, trust us."
Pasco district officials, meanwhile, talked about how difficult it can be to find "highly qualified" teachers in key areas - especially for special education and juvenile justice, where students' needs change frequently and teachers might need to be certified in multiple subject areas.
They also talked about how hard it is to explain to parents that a school earned an A from the state, but failed to make adequate yearly progress according to the federal standard. They suggested closer alignment between the systems, perhaps eliminating the pass-fail component of AYP.
A school must pass all 39 measures of the federal standard to achieve it, compared with Florida's scale system.
After the 90-minute session ended, assistant superintendent Sandy Ramos acknowledged that she hadn't heard much that was new. But, she added, it always helps to have the opportunity to make the case before people who can make changes.
Representatives for Brown-Waite and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez wrote notes throughout the meeting, and took comment cards back with them, too.
Florida deputy commissioner Jay Pfeiffer said hearing from the public does make a difference in what he does. He asked several of the speakers to keep in touch with him, so he could call upon their expertise.
He also figured many of the issues that arose could inform the debate of Florida's FCAT external review panel, which he oversees.
"They're issues, I think, that we have to deal with," Pfeiffer said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 909-4614 or firstname.lastname@example.org For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.