Waiting for the ax to fall

No Child Left Behind leaves Cary Reynolds in limbo

It's a Wednesday evening,
and the Chick-fil-A on Buford Highway is humming with the voices of small children alternately hugging and fleeing the guy in the giant cow suit. Melanie Bilda sits at a folding table near the restaurant's entrance; periodically, kids come up to say hello and have a star or heart painted on their tiny faces. As Bilda calls them by name, she seems to be enjoying herself in spite of the recent news that Cary Reynolds, the DeKalb school where she's been principal for the past two years, has made the state's list of schools that "need improvement" for six years running.

After languishing at the bottom of school rankings thanks to low test scores, Cary Reynolds is now poised to come out on top in an altogether different category: the race to see what school will be first to have its entire staff fired for failing to increase test scores. So besides the challenge of improving test results, the staff also must wrestle with the notion that they may not have their jobs next year.

The situation at Cary Reynolds points to the tacit absurdity of the No Child Left Behind Act, which, by directing states to set minimum standards for every school, ignores certain hard facts that schools like Cary Reynolds are well acquainted with. For instance, at Cary Reynolds, nearly 70 percent of the students arrive unable to speak a word of English. Some of them are 7 or older and have never been to school before.

"From the data that came out, we didn't learn anything we didn't already know," Bilda says of the school's test scores. "Our Hispanic subgroup didn't make AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress]? No duh. The kids don't speak English."

Bilda's gripes are echoed on the national level. "Under the law's Adequate Yearly Progress provision, all children are expected to learn the same information at the same rate," Reg Weaver, president of the National Association of Educators, complained recently in the group's publication. "It is illogical and impractical to expect every child to have the same skill and ability, or be expected to learn and achieve at the same rate."

What matters most at Cary Reynolds, Bilda says, is that parents are happy with the school and kids are learning. Children who couldn't speak English at all last year can read and write. English-speaking students even pick up a second language from their foreign-born classmates. Bilda and her staff write grant applications, and seek additional funding to supply free books and electronic learning toys kids can take home to improve their skills. And come parent-teacher conference time, teachers scare up interpreters and hold monthly school meetings in Spanish.

Chandra Bonner did a lot of research before deciding not to send her son to a better- performing school, an option required under the No Child Left Behind Act. Cary Reynolds' test scores aren't impressive, she admits, but what goes on in her son's kindergarten class is. "He's already come home with a couple of Spanish words," she says.

It's important to Bonner that her son, who's black, has a diverse learning environment and a chance to learn a second language. "I decided I would participate a lot and try to do things to make the school better," she says.

For her part, Bilda says the children are making progress, even if it's not as fast as the government would like. The kids need time to catch up — not a new administration, she says. "I don't think that the state, or whoever, can come in and do anything better than we have."

Some members of Congress are waking up to the shortcomings of the law. A measure that would have delayed implementation of the law until every mandate received full funding was defeated on Capitol Hill on July 9, but others are on the way. In the meantime, the NEA has filed suit against the Department of Education, while some states — Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Utah — are considering ignoring the legislation altogether and forgoing federal funding instead.

Cary Reynolds is one of the many schools nationwide that the No Child Left Behind Act has left in limbo. Under the letter of federal law, a plan to completely restructure the school should already be in place at Cary Reynolds. But no such plan exists. Why? Because neither the school nor the school district knows what such a plan should look like, or who should devise it — yet another sign of the vagueness of a law that's confusing education officials around the nation and making nice people turn bitter.

At 32, Bilda's young for a school administrator, but when she talks about some of the mandates of No Child Left Behind, it's with the kind of cynical derision usually found in someone who's played the game for decades. Asked if she's worried about her job, she gives a shrug and rolls her eyes.

"Yeah," she says. "I guess if reality hits, I will be. Whatever."