Like most schools serving disadvantaged students, West Middle School in Fort Duchesne, Utah, has struggled to meet its student-achievement goals under the No Child Left Behind Act.
But it has a bigger problem: Attendance.
The school’s students live on the Ute Indian reservation, where tribal traditions take precedence over going to school. Members of an extended family gather for burial rites for up to two weeks, said Charles Nelson, the superintendent of the 5,600-student Utah school district.
Such absences make it virtually impossible for the school to have an attendance rate of 93 percent, which the state requires for schools to make adequate yearly progress under the 6-year-old federal law.
Based on absences in the first half of the school year, it would be impossible for West Middle School to make AYP for 2007-08, Mr. Nelson said.
But the school is determined to turn itself around.
“We’re telling [the teachers] we don’t give a rip about AYP,” Mr. Nelson said. “We care about the student achievement.”
Regardless, West Middle School’s students will be in for big changes next year, when the grades 6-8 school merges with Todd Elementary School.
Although several districts have shut down schools with both sagging enrollment and poor AYP standing, none of those closings can be attributed to the federal law, according to Caitlin Scott, a consultant to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group that tracks implementation of the NCLB law.
The decision to merge the two Utah schools came after the Ute community objected to an earlier plan to close West Middle School and transfer its 120 students to a middle school 20 miles away.
Mr. Nelson said the latest plan will assign the middle school students to one teacher for the whole school day, with subject-area specialists helping them.
That, he hopes, will lead to academic achievement. He also is working with the Ute tribe to help increase student attendance.
“We’ve finally gotten on the same page with the Indian tribe, and they’re committed to getting these problems solved,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2008 edition of Education Week