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AYP standards trouble Park Rapids superintendent

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PARK RAPIDS - When a flu epidemic at Glenn Chiodo's old school district kept 100 kids home, Chiodo got on the phone and pleaded with parents to bring their sick kids to school.

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Cars of coughing, sneezing, barfing kids showed up.

Why on earth?

It was the one day of the year to test kids under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. Excessive absences are held against school districts regardless of the reasons.

The superintendent had pleaded with state education officials to let the school test later. They gave him a two-day reprieve. What were the odds that his sick kids would make a miraculous recovery in that time, he asked, to no one in particular? They forged ahead.

Fast forward to Park Rapids. A few years ago, in Chiodo's early tenure as superintendent, he became acutely aware of how capricious the district's health could be. Park Rapids got "dinged" for having too many kids gone on that one day of testing. It became labeled as a school not making the dreaded buzzwords - Adequate Yearly Progress.

"I literally told the building principal, 'Next year if you think you have too many kids absent, you get in your car and bring 'em in,'" Chiodo recalled. "That's how ridiculous it was."

AYP has become the scourge of school superintendents throughout Minnesota. Park Rapids has just gone on a "needs improvement" list for the second year in a row.

But this year it had nothing to do with absences. It was because 21 of the district's 400 special needs students simply couldn't perform to the level of regular classes and higher achieving students.

"When you have your special needs kids who already have academic issues, you're telling them they have to take a test at grade level when their assessments show they're not at grade level, what rhyme and reason does that make?" Chiodo asked in frustration.

But the mystifying aspect of NCLB is that when schools fail to make AYP two years in a row, they have to divert Title 1 funding, which is supposed to help low achieving schools and students, into other areas.

"There's no logic to it," Chiodo says. "That's the frustrating part of this."

So this year Park Rapids cut a Title 1 funded paraprofessional position that assisted struggling students with reading and math - the very areas they were deficient in.

By taking away that federally funded job, the district must now pay for the educational assistance for those struggling students from its general fund.

"We've battled budgets for years," Chiodo said. "You can theoretically shuffle (teachers around) but budget-wise you're at a quandary."

Chiodo refuses, however, to lose sleep over a program he has no control over.

"I do agree philosophically with the law, but the implementation is ridiculous," he said.

He worries that the label "needs improvement" unfairly demeans an otherwise great school district.

"It gives the assumption that the school needs some dramatic turnaround when some of these categories are totally ridiculous," he said.

In past years the district has been found lacking in its "free and reduced" meal programs. What does providing meals to low-income kids have to do with meeting rigorous educational standards?

"Bingo!" Chiodo exclaims, emphasizing the nebulous criteria under the sweeping law that mandated equally sweeping educational reforms.

He echoes the frustration of educators throughout the state. Lee Warren, a representative of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, recently visited with school boards in this region, including Park Rapids.

He told them that eventually every school district in the state will be on a "needs improvement" list because even though they've placed a strong emphasis on math, reading and science, the testing standards are impossibly high.

"You'll be in good company," Warren told the Park Rapids board. Members weren't consoled.

High school principal Al Judson wonders if expectations have been set too high to accomplish - for all schools.

"Minnetonka is one of the top-rated schools in the country, yet their special ed kids scored low and they're on a needs improvement list, too," Judson said. "That's part of the 'good company' we're keeping."

Chiodo doesn't want to dwell on the negative. Regardless of how he feels about NCLB, he's nevertheless driven to implement it, and to lead the charge in improving his district.

"We'll keep working with the special education students to bring them along," he said. "I'm sure we have staff that get frustrated but I don't think that turns to self-doubt. We do really well.

"They use words of accountability," he said. "I don't have a problem with being held accountable. But for crying out loud, make the game so it has a level playing field.'"

In response to the criticism that NCLB has resulted in educators teaching test-taking skills to play the game, Chiodo admits it has altered the curriculum slightly. Certain test materials will be taught in advance of the tests, not afterward. He says it's never a bad thing to "re-visit our curriculum."

Chiodo challenges any parent to look at the district's test scores and criticize what the district - and students - have accomplished. Park Rapids graduates come out of school highly educated and do well in college, he maintains.

In addition to being concerned about the criteria used to exemplify schools, Chiodo is concerned that NCLB also doesn't measure student growth over time. It takes a snapshot of the student body at one given moment.

And he's concerned that education has become increasingly politicized as a result of NCLB. He urges unhappy students and parents to take their concerns up with politicians, and to voice those concerns in the voting booth this fall.

A new presidential administration and Congress is bound to make changes in the law next year, he says.

"We can sit and complain about it but we need to deal with what we have in front of us and we're going to try as hard as we can," he said.

"What I don't want to see in this district and in this community is that we get bogged down with something we have no control over.

"We just need to keep plugging away and if we get labeled, we'll still keep plugging away."

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