WILL ROGERS — Relief from the harsh requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act may be on the way for the Will Rogers Learning Community and the three other district elementary schools that receive federal money.

President Barack Obama announced last week that his administration would be making changes in the waiver system for the 2001 bill that forces states to hold public schools accountable for the quality of education they deliver to children.

The waivers would roll back many of the requirements of the law, which the president acknowledged has “serious flaws that our hurting our children instead of helping them.”

Under current the law, if a certain percentage of a school’s population fails to meet standards of proficiency established by its state Department of Education two years running, it falls into “program improvement” status.

That designation, which Will Rogers was assigned this year, comes with specific requirements each year that a school continues to fall behind.

As of August 2011, an additional 913 California schools became program improvement, or PI, schools. Across the state, 63 percent of schools that receive Title 1 funding have the same scarlet letter.

The reason is that schools that receive Title 1 funds have a larger population of socio-economically disadvantaged students and often a more diverse student base. Rather than earning them leniency, it actually makes it easier to fail under NCLB.

Will Rogers, for instance, had to meet 21 standards, while a wealthier school like Franklin Elementary had to meet only nine. It only takes one missed benchmark two years running to force a school into PI.

Ten of the 17 schools in the district failed to meet the annual yearly progress standards, including all of the elementary schools that receive federal money: McKinley Elementary, Edison Language Academy and John Muir Elementary School.

Without the proposed waivers, all four will likely be in program improvement next year.

But the waivers aren’t free, said Maureen Bradford, director of educational services at the district.

To qualify for the waiver, the federal government will require states to use higher academic standards, create a system of accountability and recognition for success and an evaluation system for teachers and principals.

That all costs money that the state does not have.

“We continue to evaluate the president’s proposal to determine if it’s in the best interest of California’s public schools,” wrote Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education in an e-mail. “We are looking for increased flexibility, and have significant concerns over several conditions required by the waivers that could end up costing the state billions of dollars.”

Still, the district sees a very real possibility that the waivers could prevent the other three Title 1 schools from going into PI, and perhaps freeze Will Rogers at “year one” requirements so that more drastic measures do not have to be taken.

“We are hopeful that some relief will be coming,” Bradford said.

This is the first year that any school in the district has entered PI.

For Will Rogers, it meant sending home a letter to every parent at the school explaining what “program improvement” means and informing them that they have the right to move their child to another school in the district.

Since, 11 children from seven families have taken the district up on its offer, which includes transportation paid for by the school district out of Title 1 funds.

It’s unclear at this point if any of those students will need to take advantage of the offer of transportation.

Will Rogers PTA President Sally Miller said that there is a great deal of confusion about what program improvement really is, which led to the exit of the families.

Some chose to move to Edison, McKinley and John Muir, which will likely become PI schools next year without state intervention.

“This is really affecting Will Rogers this year, but it will affect all Title 1 schools next year,” Miller said.

Both of Miller’s children, a second grader and a fourth grader, remain at Will Rogers.

“What keeps me here is the kids’ love of the school,” Miller said. “Rogers has a unique approach to learning, and I don’t think that’s found so easily elsewhere.”

The school still has all-year art classes, a unique music program and an emphasis on project-based learning called STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — that Miller and other parents appreciate.

“They pay careful consideration to closing the achievement gap, and students are making progress at Will Rogers,” Miller said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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