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Western Heights anything but a failure

July 14, 2011

Several months ago, I received a handwritten invitation from a student at Western Heights Middle School, asking if I would attend an open house there and see what she and her classmates were studying. Asking me to a school is like asking a sinner to a prayer meeting. But, despite some butterflies, I went anyway.

You might have read recently about Western Heights, in light of recent stories on test scores. Western Heights is the one, I take it, that is on something like double-secret probation, in danger of being blown up and restructured for the second time since 2006. It's struggling to meet ever-elevating proficiency testing standards as prescribed under No Child Left Behind.

I suppose professional educators know what they're doing, and I acknowledge that a lot goes on that I don't know about and wouldn't understand if I did.

But here's what I took out of that open house: If I had kids, I would have absolutely no qualms about sending them to Western Heights. None. Matter of fact, if you had told me that Western Heights was some kind of special school for high achievers, I'd have believed it.

I saw their art, their writing and their outdoor garden. My hostess and the young gentleman on her study team knew more about how government works than some political groups I could mention. I understand I was seeing the best and brightest, not the ones who miss school because, at age 12, they have to be mommies and daddies to their younger siblings because their parents are locked in a bedroom strung out on whatever narcotic is making the rounds at the moment.

But I don't get the sense that any child at Western Heights was failing due to a lack of effort or talent on the part of the administrators and staff. A recent Herald-Mail story documented how some kids, absent responsible parents, are given alarm clocks. Others are picked up by school personnel. This doesn't sound like a school problem; this sounds like a home problem.

And once these kids are finally rounded up, they might be found to be reading at only a second-grade level. That means a kid who probably has trouble learning anyway will somehow have to be taught in a way that has him gaining a grade level, or two or three, at a faster-than-normal pace in order to catch up. But catching up is even more difficult, because the bar that measures proficiency rises each year. Schools are chasing results that are flatly unobtainable. This doesn't sound like a school problem; this sounds like a testing problem.

Testing is an important part of education. But testing has become so entangled, so arbitrary and nebulous at the same time, that I don't get the impression that we even have a good idea of what we're measuring anymore. Are we testing students? Teachers? Home life? Testing proficiency? What a student knew when the year started or what he or she had learned by the time it ended?

The almighty proficiency number has joined the almighty dollar as the holy grail of education. When higher test scores are announced, the public is rightfully wondering whether this reflects better-trained students or a new way to job the system. "Data-driven accountability" is being blamed, at least in part, for creating an atmosphere of fear that fueled a major cheating scandal exposed this week in Atlanta.

I am not psychic, but I bet I can walk into any school jurisdiction in the country and predict the "good" schools and the "bad" schools. All I need to see in advance is an economic breakdown of the community. It's no accident that the schools that constantly struggle are the ones whose kids come from poor neighborhoods with too many drugs and too few jobs and too little hope.

What would happen, I wonder, if we took the best school and the worst school in Washington County and swapped faculties. Does anyone believe for a second that the last would suddenly be first and the first last? There are good teachers and bad teachers, but this isn't a Bear Bryant situation where "he can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n." Yet teachers and schools in wealthy communities with involved parents are pitted against teachers of kids who might have slept on a bare floor and had potato chips for breakfast, if that.

My young friends at Western Heights were smart and well-cared for, and their parents were in attendance and acutely interested in their children's education. I wonder what we're doing to them (and their teachers) when we say their school is "failing," and that everything they know about school might be turned on its head in the next year or two.

Fortunately, they're kids; they probably won't notice. But everyone else needs to be clear that Western Heights isn't a failure; it's closer to being a miracle.



Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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