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Area schools put on notice by No Child Left Behind are finding solutions to meet the government's goals

As students flock back to schools across Minnesota today, several area districts will kick off classes with an added urgency to raise scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

Moorhead teachers
From left, teachers Jennifer Carey, Julie Schauer and Mary Flickinger take part in a training session last week with new GPS devices purchased through grants for Robert Asp Elementary School in Moorhead. Heidi Shaffer / The Forum

As students flock back to schools across Minnesota today, several area districts will kick off classes with an added urgency to raise scores on high-stakes standardized tests.

These districts are making changes - from drafting improvement plans to launching a $1.4 million academic overhaul - after running afoul of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

As the law's long-overdue reauthorization remains stalled in Congress, more area districts are paying the price of failing to hit their improvement targets by covering the cost of private tutors, overhauling professional development or letting principals go.

Some decry the punitive feel of the measures.

"Once on the No Child Left Behind punishment merry-go-round, few schools have the ability to get off," said John Fitzgerald, education fellow at the nonprofit Minnesota 2020. "A punishment-based system like NCLB is counterproductive to education and should be abandoned."


Still, local educators are determined to make the most of the law's demands.

"We are approaching it as a way to improve," says Kevin Kopperud, principal of Moorhead's Robert Asp Elementary. "We're looking forward to moving forward on it."


Students and parents might not immediately notice changes at Robert Asp this year. But the school is overhauling the way its teachers collaborate and monitor progress.

After falling short of NCLB improvement targets for the fourth consecutive year, Asp landed in so-called "corrective action."

Teachers in the school will start meeting weekly, joining forces to devise lesson plans that hit state math and reading standards. They will also focus more efforts on tracking individual student improvement, intervening when a child seems to struggle.

"We'll be more intentional about teaching directly to the state standards and monitoring more closely the progress of our students," Kopperud says.

Ellen Hopkins Elementary will also adopt the changes even though it made so-called Adequate Yearly Progress this year and dodged "corrective action."


"In fact, we are looking at doing this districtwide," said Superintendent Lynne Kovash.

Both Asp and Hopkins will have to continue offering private tutors to students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The district will host an open house for parents and providers in October, said Missy Eidsness, the district's director of school improvement and accountability. Last year, the tutor opportunity drew a waiting list, and Eidsness said, "We're hoping we will get a good response again this year."


Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton is in corrective action as a district and will likely make curriculum changes, according to district officials.

Pelican Rapids

After a year in "corrective action," Viking Elementary in Pelican Rapids made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2010 and will avoid the more drastic changes NCLB calls for down the road, from replacing staff to prolonging the school day.

Superintendent Deb Wanek said some of the same measures Moorhead is embracing this year - from more time for staff collaboration to more effort to track student progress - paid off for the school.

"I am really pleased our elementary and high school made AYP this year," Wanek said. "We're moving in the right direction."


Districtwide, Pelican didn't make AYP. The district is switching to a four-day school week, with classes held Tuesday through Friday.

Viking will have to continue offering private tutors to students. In a new development this year, however, the district's Community Education program got state approval to become a tutoring provider - an option Moorhead is also exploring. That means some classroom teachers will get to work one-on-one with students after hours.

"It's a great way to provide consistency," Wanek said.


Students and teachers will return to noticeable changes at Waubun Secondary, one of 19 Minnesota schools slated for a federally funded makeover because of lower-than-average test scores.

The school will have a new principal, Michael Carey. The departure of the school's former leader was part of a federal prescription for boosting achievement. With $1.4 million in federal money, school leaders are instituting a battery of changes. Two new half-time administrative employees will free up time so Carey can focus on academics.

The school is adding an hour of instruction to each day and pouring more resources into professional development.

Fitzgerald says the NCLB punitive labels don't capture a range of factors outside of a school's control, such as a large number of students living in poverty in Waubun or learning English in Pelican Rapids. And he questions whether the measures prescribed by the law work in most cases. (This year, eight of the 76 schools in corrective action statewide made AYP.)


Steve Gibb, the acting school improvement director at the state Department of Education, believes the changes are paying off, but it takes time. His team often urges districts to get a head start on planning for corrective action.

"I believe school leaders do see a difference," he says. "The question is how dramatic and how fast these changes are. It's about creating a sense of urgency and being very proactive."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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