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Departed student helps school win appeal

December 15, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

One student who left Eastern Elementary School last school year during the Maryland School Assessments indirectly has helped overturn a state decision that has held the Hagerstown school to a threatening standard this year.

The Maryland State Department of Education told Washington County Public Schools officials in November that the 560-student school will not have to provide costly tutoring services for its students this year.

Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan has said it would cost the school system $1,100 per student to send them to be tutored by any of the 12 state-approved learning services.

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Schools Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Patricia Abernethy has said the school system was required to set aside up to $150,000 toward tutoring services in anticipation of the spring 2003 test scores.

Eastern was told in September, after the release of last spring's standardized test scores, that it was placed in its second year of "improvement" this year, meaning its scores did not meet state proficiency standards for three consecutive years, Palkovitz-Brown said.

Because of that designation, the school was told that if it does not pull up its Maryland School Assessments scores this school year, it would have to consider building up programs at the school to address its bad marks for the 2004-05 school year, said Ron Peiffer, deputy state superintendent for the state Department of Education.

"We're not in a bad as shape as we thought we were in," Principal Kathy Stiles said.

After some investigation on the part of the school system's pupil personnel office, school officials discovered that the area in which Eastern failed most on the spring 2003 exam - special education - was accounting for a homeless student who left the school in the midst of the examination period. This caused his scores, marked as failures due to his absence, to be factored into a group that otherwise would have reached the state standard of proficiency, said Carol Corwell-Martin, the school system's school improvement coordinator and Title I school support specialist.

She helped write the appeal to the state.

Corwell-Martin said a group of school officials tried to track down the student who left the school during the examination period and discovered that he moved to New York. But when the boy's new school was contacted, officials there said they had no record of him.

While the boy was a student at Eastern, Corwell-Martin said, pupil personnel office workers picked him up and dropped him off at school, but at one point they could not find him.

She said the boy's test scores did not pull the school's special education math scores below proficiency levels, but his reading score was just low enough to place the school in its second year of improvement.

Since the special education group is a small group of students (The MSA breaks scores down into ethnic groups and special-needs groups), she said there is a larger margin of error.

"It's unusual for the math to work out that way," Peiffer said.

The money that the school system put aside for tutoring services will be distributed among the county's Title I schools, said JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, the system's executive director of elementary education.

Eastern, with 49 percent of its students last year considered impoverished by state department standards, is considered a Title I school. Schools in that category receive more state and federal funds based on poverty.

Peiffer said many school systems appealed state decisions on their schools' improvement status, but only Washington County was granted an appeal.

"It's still possible for one student to trip a school out of making improvement," Peiffer said.

The new designation places Eastern neck and neck with Hancock Elementary, a county school also falling below standards, Palkovitz-Brown said.

Corwell-Martin said if the two schools make enough improvement this year on test scores, they'll be taken off the "improvement" list.

Over the summer, the Washington County Board of Education restructured staff positions at Eastern and implemented a state-approved reform model to be used at the school this school year.

Stiles said teachers at the school will at least work their contracted extra hour and get their additional $5,000 pay through the end of this school year.

She said teachers like the staff development they get in the extra hour before school and are focused on improving student test scores.

"I want these kids to be their best," she said.

During the past school year, the state required that the school system give Eastern and Hancock students the option of attending a higher-performing school.

Peiffer said the school system must continue offering bussing to students at those schools.

Three of the four students who took the school system up on the offer last year were taken by school bus, which cost the school system $12,000, or $4,000 per child, Chris Carter, the school system's director of transportation, has said.

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