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Waiver Gives New Hampshire Schools Some Flexibility; Vermont Soldiers On With No Child Left Behind Rules

  • At Disnard Elementary School in Claremont last week, second-grade teacher Jessica Christian works with A.J. Fortier, left, and Tyler Benoit on reading skills. 	 Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

    At Disnard Elementary School in Claremont last week, second-grade teacher Jessica Christian works with A.J. Fortier, left, and Tyler Benoit on reading skills.  Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Principle Melissa Lewis in her office at the Disnard Elementary School in Claremont, N.H. on Aug. 29 2013<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Principle Melissa Lewis in her office at the Disnard Elementary School in Claremont, N.H. on Aug. 29 2013
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • At Disnard Elementary School in Claremont last week, second-grade teacher Jessica Christian works with A.J. Fortier, left, and Tyler Benoit on reading skills. 	 Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck
  • Principle Melissa Lewis in her office at the Disnard Elementary School in Claremont, N.H. on Aug. 29 2013<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

After reading a short poem about popcorn one morning last week, the 16 children in Jessica Christian’s classroom divided up into groups to write down words like “pop” and “hot.”

But the Disnard Elementary School second-graders didn’t assemble based on who was friends with whom. Instead, 10 children who were doing well with this particular task gathered around a classroom aide, five others who needed a little extra guidance worked with another aide, and two children sat down with Christian and a laminated alphabet.

Together, the teacher and A.J. Fortier and Tyler Benoit, both 7, worked through the building blocks of reading. Pausing at each letter, they asked whether it could start a word ending in -ot. “Is ‘lot’ a word?” Christian asked.

“Yes!” Tyler said.

“As in ‘I like to eat a lot of popcorn,’ ” Christian said. When the two children could each count eight words, Christian exchanged high-fives, a boost to their confidence and enthusiasm.

Giving Disnard’s students more instruction in small groups is a direct response to the latest wrinkle in New Hampshire’s compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 law that redrew the public education landscape. The school year that began last week at Disnard in Claremont and many Upper Valley schools is the first since the Granite State received a federal flexibility waiver under NCLB.

The waiver exempts New Hampshire schools from many of the federal requirements that still bedevil Vermont, where state education officials abandoned an attempt to get a waiver last year. No longer are 70 percent of New Hampshire schools deemed “in need of improvement,” a label that often became synonymous with failure, based on the results of the annual New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests.

Under the waiver, the state still adopts standards for each grade level, although school districts remain free to create their own standards, said Heather Gage, director of the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Division of Instruction. All public schools will still be required to take annual state tests.

The waiver was granted in late June and since then the state quickly identified two groups of schools that need the most assistance. Two dozen “priority” schools have the lowest test scores across the board, while another 23 “focus” schools have the most significant achievement gaps between certain subgroups of students and the general population.

“We’re able to look at those 47 schools and get really personalized,” Gage said. The schools targeted for assistance were chosen from the state’s 228 Title 1 schools, which receive federal aid based on their population of low-income children.

There are no Upper Valley schools on the priority list, but among the 23 focus schools are four in the Upper Valley: Claremont’s Disnard and Maple Avenue elementary schools; Unity Elementary, which started the school year using space in Disnard Elementary; and Indian River School, the middle school for the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.

At most New Hampshire schools, the main effect of the waiver is to flatten the mountain of paperwork that came with being a school or district “in need of improvement.” That leaves more time to address other pressing needs. In Lebanon, for example, the schools will still be preparing for tests, improving instruction, adopting the new Common Core State Standards and preparing for the new tests that will replace the NECAPs in 2015.

“For us, things will not change a lot because we are not identified with focus or priority schools,” said Gail Paludi, superintendent of Lebanon schools. Thanks to the waiver, Lebanon is no longer considered a district in need of improvement, and none of its individual schools is considered in need of improvement, leaving administrators more time to focus on the classroom. The paperwork “was very time consuming,” Paludi said.

That doesn’t mean the state isn’t keeping an eye on the vast majority of schools, Gage said. All schools must reduce by 50 percent the proportion of students who aren’t meeting the standard on state tests over the next six years. “We want to focus on continuous improvement that’s real,” Gage said.

In Vermont, where state education officials abandoned work on a waiver application last year, most schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on the NECAP tests administered last fall in reading and math. As the standards go up, more schools fall into the “school in need of improvement” category. Only 81 Vermont schools made AYP in the most recent round of testing last fall, including 17 on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley (see accompanying list).

Vermont also commended schools that made significant progress in raising test scores, even those who remain “in need of improvement.”

New Hampshire officials last year called NCLB’s accountability measures a broken system, and that sentiment is not uncommon in Vermont.

“My personal opinion ... is that in the early years we were identifying schools that really were in need of intervention,” said Michael Hock, director of educational assessment at the state Agency of Education. But as the federal “annual measurable objective” that schools have to meet goes up, “we’re starting to identify schools in need of improvement that are pretty excellent schools,” Hock said. “At this point, I’m not sure how useful it is.”

Next year, the federal goal for schools is to have 100 percent of students meeting or exceeding the standards tested by the NECAP exams, a bar few, if any, Vermont schools are likely to clear. “That’s the real downside of not having a waiver,” Hock said.

The state decided against seeking a waiver because federal officials wanted test scores to be part of teacher and principal evaluations. Hock said. Vermont officials view the test results as a way to evaluate the quality of the system, not the quality of individual teachers.

Under New Hampshire’s waiver, test scores are 20 percent of an educator’s evaluation, but “it’s not just the NECAP that counts to evaluate a teacher,” said Cory LeClair, school improvement coordinator for SAU 6, which comprises Claremont, Cornish and Unity.

“This waiver actually gives us greater flexibility in how we do that, rather than locking us into one source of data,” said Melissa Lewis, principal at Disnard Elementary School.

Indeed, a school district can choose not to use test scores at all in teacher evaluations, so long as some measure of student progress is incorporated, Gage said. “How they develop that ... is a local decision,” she said.

The main changes enforced by the waiver affect the school day and the way in which a school tailors instruction for students who need the most help.

For example, at Indian River School, teachers and administrators cut a minute out between classes, shaved three or four minutes from each class period and opted to post announcements in the cafeteria rather than hold a 10-minute session each morning. That carved out enough time for a 40-minute “teams in academic service centers” (or TASC) period in the middle of the day, in which teachers provide enrichment to students who are already at grade-level and remedial help to students who need to catch up to their peers, said Nancie Murphy, the Mascoma district’s director of curriculum, assessment and professional development.

The TASC period gives students a concentrated dose of more focused instruction, and also allows for more remedial work as needed elsewhere in the school day, Murphy said. “The kids will be getting more special services” at the middle school, which houses grades 5-8.

At Disnard, the class structure has changed, Lewis said. Rather than have the lead teacher stand at the head of the classroom for most of the period, he or she might talk for 10 or 15 minutes, leaving the rest of the time for work in small groups, exactly what Jessica Christian was doing in her second-grade room.

One factor that helps Disnard’s teachers is that under the waiver, struggling students are grouped in ways that make them easier to identify. Disnard was in need of improvement because of how special education students and low-income students fared on the NECAP tests. But with 70 percent of the student body identified as low income, and 20 to 22 percent on an individual education plan (IEP), there was considerable overlap. With the new groupings under the waiver, Lewis and LeClair found that low-income children were scoring fine, but low-income children also identified as special needs children were not meeting the standard.

The fairness of making all students take the same exams is still a matter of debate among educators. “It’s an absolute travesty in my world … to give a child that has a special need the same test as an average child,” said Rick Talbot, principal at Tunbridge Central School. “I can’t keep giving him tests that are over his head.”

At Disnard, Lewis has rejected the use of the group labels, particularly where poverty is concerned. “I do not want anyone using a student’s demographic information as an excuse that a child can’t learn,” she said.

By looking at children as individual learners — which is what schools do as a matter of course — it’s easier to see where they need help, and the labels conferred by the federal law recede into the background.

One thing the waiver doesn’t provide to Disnard and the other focus schools is more resources to hire staff. Disnard and the other focus schools will receive $32,000 each in additional Title 1 money, LeClair said. “We don’t know how we’re going to use it yet,” she said.

Instead, Lewis said, teachers are concentrating the resources they have on the sort of individualized and small-group instruction going on in Jessica Christian’s second-grade classroom. Lewis, who began her teaching career at Disnard, takes this new task seriously.

“We really brainstormed,” she said. “In a perfect world, what would we want to happen.” The whole school is focused on “how are you going to close this gap.”

Next to a small conference table in Lewis’ office is a collage of photographs of the school staff’s own children that she called “our moral compass.” Teachers discussing instruction and curriculum consult the photographs when they make decisions: “If it’s not good enough for my boys,” Lewis said, “it’s not good enough for Disnard.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.