The scarlet letter in education these days is an "R." It stands for restructuring — the purgatory that schools are pushed into if they fail to meet testing goals for six straight years under the No Child Left Behind law.
Nationwide, about 2,300 schools are either in restructuring or are a year away and planning for such drastic action as firing the principal and moving many of the teachers, according to a database provided to The Associated Press by the Education Department. Those schools are being warily eyed by educators elsewhere as the law's consequences begin to hit home.
Schools fall into this category after smaller changes, such as offering tutoring, fall short. The effort is supposed to amount to a major makeover, and it has created a sense of urgency that in some schools verges on desperation.
"This is life and death," says John Deasy, superintendent of schools in Prince George's County, Md., where several schools are coming face to face with the consequences of President Bush's signature education law. "This is very high-stakes work."
The schools bearing the label are often in poor urban areas, like Far Rockaway at the end of the subway line in the New York City borough of Queens. But they're also found in leafy suburbs, rural areas and resort towns.
Only schools that receive federal aid for low-income students — known as Title I — are subject to the law's consequences. But they can be brand-new facilities with luxuries like television studios.
"It's not a Hollywood version of a school that's falling down or total chaos," says Kerri Briggs, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary issues at the Education Department.
The 2002 education law, which is up for renewal in Congress, offers a broad menu of options for restructuring. They include firing principals and moving teachers, and calling in turnaround specialists.
At Far Rockaway High School — or Far Rock, as locals say — restructuring has led to a new face in the principal's office and a new teaching force.
The new principal, Denise Hallett, came from the district's headquarters about three years ago. She splashed colors like hot pink and sunny yellow on the walls of the grand, but neglected, century-old building. She painted the library floors tangerine orange and replaced the moldy books with new, grade-appropriate reading material.
She also replaced three-fourths of the staff.
"The instruction wasn't happening," Hallett said, offering an explanation for poor test scores, high dropout rates and gang violence. "You've got to make changes in the teaching, so that you have wonderful things that are happening inside the classroom."
Schools in low-income communities have trouble attracting and keeping sought-after teachers. Working conditions are often thought to be poor, and teachers in failing schools face increased scrutiny.
The federal law says schools in restructuring can replace teachers. Local union contracts can make that difficult, but some collective bargaining agreements are starting to permit it. Usually, the teachers transfer to another school or work as substitutes.
Hallett says she's giving her brand-new teachers the support they need to thrive — and stay. She has a full-time professional development coach on staff and has promised more lesson planning time.
"When I first came in I had my family saying, 'You're going to Far Rockaway?'" recalls Ronalda McMillian, a new teacher. "But as I've come here, I've found I really like it. ... There's a reputation that precedes the school that is not actually present when you walk through these doors."
Felix Cruz walked purposefully through the halls one afternoon clutching balloons for a senior awards ceremony. The 17-year-old says he's proud to attend Far Rockaway. "People just think if it's in Rockaway, it's a bad school. It's a good school," Cruz said firmly.
He is among the students taking architectural drawing courses. Hallett says despite the emphasis that No Child Left Behind places on math and reading — the subjects tested under the law — she tries to offer engaging classes that expose kids to careers and make school fun.
The last round of test scores showed Far Rockaway students improved over the previous year in math but were still struggling to make gains in English.
Pressure for principals, students
The pressure for principals is real, since principals often are replaced when schools don't make gains quickly enough. Nevertheless, Hallett has a calm, upbeat demeanor — though expressing a flash of anger when talking about the academic years that precede high school.
"You should know this: I have students who come into this building and they can't read," she said. "Schools have failed them. ... If I have a kid that can't read at grade level four, they're not going to pass a state examination."
The pressure to prepare kids for high school is clear at Long Branch Middle School, a school in restructuring in a working-class New Jersey shore town.
The most obvious sign of the pressure is in a public hallway near the school's main entrance where graphs hang in full view of passing students and teachers. Each bears a teacher's name and shows a growth curve, indicating plainly whether students in a class are making progress on reading and math tests given throughout the year.
Superintendent Joseph Ferraina, a former teacher and principal at the school, acknowledges that such discomforting changes make teachers nervous.
"It's difficult to change schools," he said. "What often happens is we talk about change, change, change, and we go back to what we felt comfortable with."
Ferraina says the wall charts are helping force his school to rely on testing data throughout the year, not just on the No Child Left Behind spring tests.
"There are people working with data every day now," he said. "They're sitting down with people and saying, 'You know what, your class seems to not be doing well in whole numbers. We need to add a lesson in whole numbers.'"
The focus on tests worries some who say teachers are focusing too much on preparing kids for exams rather than spending time on important other instruction.
Long Branch, like Far Rockaway, has been organized into small academies where certain subjects are emphasized. The middle school, in a state-of-the-art building, also has moved to block scheduling, where core courses last roughly 90 minutes — twice as long as typical classes.
Louis DeAngelis, an eighth-grade English teacher, says that pushes him to be more thoughtful and creative about lesson planning. "You can't get up there and sing and dance. You should be able to go bell to bell," he said.
Whether it's the block scheduling or the other changes, student performance is moving in the right direction at Long Branch. Last year, only special education students missed annual No Child Left Behind benchmarks.
Test scores for students with disabilities, for immigrants, poor children and minorities must be separated out under the law. But if one group fails to hit testing benchmarks at a school — like last year at Long Branch — the whole school gets a failing grade.
Educators say that's too harsh, and lawmakers and the Bush administration seem open to an adjustment.
Other changes the administration is pushing include giving schools in restructuring more options. The Education Department has proposed letting them become charter schools, which are public but operate more freely than traditional schools, regardless of state limits on how many charter schools are allowed. The administration also wants the federal law to override provisions in collective bargaining agreements to ensure failing schools have complete control over who works there.
"These are schools where there are some significant problems," Briggs said. "Without more serious action, we're going to keep getting what we've gotten."
Regardless of whether No Child Left Behind is altered, the message is getting to schools that they must make real changes now, said Douglas Anthony, principal of Arrowhead Elementary in Upper Marlboro, Md., a suburb of Washington.
During a recent visit, first and fourth graders alike were busy with math and reading basics.
Intense atmosphere for youngsters
It was around 2 p.m., shortly before the school day was to end, and a time when elementary-age students might typically be playing tag, working on craft projects or just easing into the end of the academic day.
But at Arrowhead, a school in the restructuring planning stage, math worksheets were on the desks, kids were sounding out vowels and special-ed teachers were working with small groups of children.
Superintendent Deasy acknowledges the atmosphere at Arrowhead is more intense than at schools that aren't facing restructuring. He said lessons at schools missing testing goals have to be very targeted, and he says there often isn't time for electives and free play like at other schools.
Critics of the law complain about such constraints. But Deasy said Arrowhead's test scores are heading in the right direction, precisely because students are on task and teachers are talking about instruction rather than cafeteria menus or bus schedules.
Said Principal Anthony: "There's a new level of urgency about the work we have to do for students."