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Willmar school officials chafe over federal law requirements in math, reading

WILLMAR -- Members of the Willmar School Board vented their frustration with federal education law Monday, when they approved an "improvement plan" for Kennedy Elementary School.

The plan is required under the No Child Left Behind federal education law because students in some groups did not meet state standards in reading and math. Tests were given to third- and fourth-graders at the school last spring.

Information provided by Kennedy Elementary indicated that students did well on the tests overall, board members said. In fact, scores increased from the previous year.

However, the low scores of 44 students, 17 percent of those tested, labeled Kennedy Elementary a school that is not making adequate yearly progress. Kennedy is the second-largest school in the district, with 860 students in grades K-4, including about 300 in grades 3 and 4.

The adequate yearly progress measurement changes each year, with test goals rising over time until the 2013-2014 school year, when 100 percent of students will be expected to pass the tests for their grade level.

The school met goals as a whole, but scores fell short in come subgroups that are graded separately. At Kennedy, students with the lower scores fell into several subgroups: Hispanic, limited English proficiency, special education and low-income.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard likened the effort to climbing a hill with more steps added each year.

Board member Wayne Lenzmeier said each state sets its own standards, so the same students who have trouble meeting Minnesota's standards would score higher in some other states.

"They need to find a point where everybody's on the same page," he said. "The thing that's important is the kids are getting a really good education."

Board Chairman Mike Carlson said the board appreciates the efforts of the staff at Kennedy.

"One of the things I get concerned about is, hopefully, parents get proper information about just what this means," said board member Brad Schmidt.

Kjergaard said the schools send letters to parents and do a good job of explaining the situation.

The plan includes stepped up efforts to involve parents and volunteers from the community in the schools.

Staff training is another major part of the plan. The training will emphasize best practices for helping students develop vocabulary in reading and math. Teachers will also learn more about how to use testing data to evaluate the needs of the children in their classrooms.

The school is now required to divert 10 percent of its federal Title I funding for staff training. The funds are normally used to provide extra help for students who are struggling in reading and math. The money will be spent to pay for teacher training and to pay for substitutes while teachers attend training.

A similar plan has been in place for a year at Lincoln Elementary School. That school has 55 students participating in a tutoring program this year. That program is also required under No Child Left Behind.