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School labeled a failure enjoys its great success


Diane Lenzi remembers the moment the federal government labeled her school a failure.

The Park Elementary School principal was sitting at her desk, her Principal of the Year award neatly framed nearby, when her boss called and said parents would be given the option to take their children out of Park - and the school system would bus them someplace better.

"I was devastated," says Lenzi, in her 12th year as principal of the Brooklyn Park school, where two years of falling test scores and a high level of pupil poverty qualified it for the federally mandated transfer program. "It's very demoralizing for me and the teachers."

Yet, she argues, Park Elementary is a success by almost any measure. The most recent test scores are up, attendance is high, teachers are earning thousands of dollars in grants, and families are clamoring to get in.

While only two pupils took the federal government's offer to transfer out, another 30 children transferred in this year from outside the school's attendance zone.

Park's paradox - a school that has won the faith of parents and teachers but has not won the faith of the federal government - is hardly unique. Nationwide, dozens of the schools targeted for transfers are award winners, experts say, explaining in part why few parents have moved their children.

"Park is a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the No Child Left Behind law," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group often critical of standardized testing.

"Any assumption that any test score can accurately capture what's going on in a school is false," he said. "It does not take into account what the kids bring and what's added by the school. When you have transient kids or migrant kids or kids who don't speak English, that school has a heckuva lot of work to do."

Federal education officials defend the program to base transfer options on test scores, as established under the No Child Left Behind education legislation signed by President Bush this year.

"Tests are the one uniform measure to determine whether or not students are meeting standards," said Dan Langan, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. "If a school is failing on its own state's criteria, then the students should be given a choice."

Several teachers at Park Elementary choose to have their children attend Park even though they live in other neighborhoods. One of them is Sandy Bennett, who lives in Linthicum and has two sons at Park.

"I know the teachers here. I know what they're made of," said Bennett, who has taught at the school for 12 years. "This is where I think my children will get the best education.

Park Elementary serves a northern Anne Arundel County community that is a part of the state's HotSpot crime-reduction program. Off a stretch of Ritchie Highway crammed with fast food joints and rent-to-own electronics stores, in a neighborhood of squat brick and Formstone homes, Park is a beacon on a hill. The new, $10 million school building opened in 1996, trimmed in sea-green and aqua to reflect the school's nautical theme.

"Park is a little oasis in this neighborhood," said the school's music teacher, Jason Williams, who won a grant to attend a NASA space camp over the summer and is organizing space projects for this year. "The parents know what we're doing. They see our efforts and the results - the concerts, the projects - and it's encouraging that their confidence doesn't lie with a statistic."

That statistic is the school's score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the now-defunct test that rated schools statewide for the last decade. Park's MSPAP score fell for two years in a row, down to 25.7 percent of pupils scoring satisfactory in 2000. It was up to 30.5 percent last year. (The state's goal was for schools to have 70 percent of pupils at the satisfactory level.)

But the falling scores - combined with the school's Title I status, meaning it receives federal anti-poverty money - made Park one of six schools in Anne Arundel County that have to give pupils the option to leave and provide them with the transportation to do it. While about 2,500 children at those six schools were eligible to transfer, only 77 applied to do so by the fall.

More children would rather get into Park than get out. Every year Lenzi turns down families requesting out-of-area transfers into the school. Those families sometimes hire lawyers and make appeals to the school system. Other parents have given false addresses or pretended to live with relatives near the school so their children can attend Park, Lenzi said.

The school's guidance counselor works with an enrollment verifier from the school system to check out suspicious cases. When officials find families that live out of the school's area - often in nearby Baltimore - they tell them their children can attend Park if they pay the $4,200 annual tuition. None has.

"It just breaks your heart because you know this is the best thing for them," Lenzi said.

Families that applied to transfer their children into the school were shocked to learn anyone would want to leave. Catherine Bacot lives in Linthicum and drives her third-grade son to Park every day. She said she hasn't met a teacher there she didn't like.

"People see Brooklyn [Heights] and see a bad area ... but there are good people there," Bacot said. "But walk into the building and you see the volunteers and the caring. It's a wonderful school."

While Lenzi was upset when she learned of the federal government's designation for her school, she and the teachers say they won't let it slow them down. They say the school's MSPAP scores don't reflect its quality.

Pupils have fared better on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, they point out. Reading and math scores on the national standardized test, now called TerraNova, have improved rapidly in the past few years, with pupils now scoring at the 40th percentile or better.

The school's high transiency rate - more than twice the county average - means that many pupils taking the state test haven't benefited from Park's programs. Of the school's 410 pupils, about 60 leave over the course of a year, and 60 new children enroll.

"Kids are doing great things here, but we don't know who will walk through the door," Lenzi said.

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