School Choice & Charters

Federal Law Spurs ‘Basic Schools’ In Fla. District

By Alan Richard — August 11, 2004 3 min read

In an effort to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, a Florida district is opening three schools this week that get back to basics.

The 70,000-student Lee County school district, based in Fort Myers, was scheduled to open what it’s calling “basic schools” on Aug. 9. Housed in portable classrooms on existing campuses, the schools are designed to give students enrolled in schools that miss their targets on state test scores another option, as required by the federal law.

The move may represent a new strategy by districts looking for ways to offer more choices to students under the law—especially in growing areas where classroom space is hard to find.

“We knew that the spirit of the legislation was to address the needs of low-performing students that were struggling,” said Constance Jones, the chief academic officer for the Lee County schools. “So we felt that it would be good to try an alternative approach of learning for those students who needed extensive work in reading and math.”

So far, interest in the basic schools is modest. A total of 31 students had enrolled at the three campuses as of last week. “We anticipated the programs’ being larger,” Ms. Jones said.

But Lee County officials hope that students who may be behind academically will get the extra attention they need in the smaller schools, which will serve grades K-8 in groups of portable classrooms.

“We’re going to be able to offer, with these wonderfully small classes, a lot of individualized attention,” said Lynn Pottorf, the administrator for the basic schools. “There will also be a lot of time to work with parents as well, to involve them in their child’s program.”

Students in the basic schools generally will not share facilities with their neighboring schools. Instruction in art, music, and physical education will be incorporated into classroom instruction, Ms. Jones said.

“We explained to the parents that the primary focus was going to be reading and math instruction,” she said.

Teaching in the basic schools will rely heavily on individual, computer-based instruction, she added. Students will be placed in separate elementary and middle school classes.

Helping or Segregating?

Lee County’s experiment raises some questions as states and districts contend with the school choice provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“While we need to identify struggling students and make sure they get more help and more assistance, you don’t want to completely segregate struggling students from their high-achieving classmates,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust. The Washington-based organization works to improve student achievement, especially among minorities.

Mr. Wiener noted that the federal law requires schools that miss annual improvement goals for two consecutive years to give students from low-income families their first choice of transfer options to other public schools within the district.

Ms. Jones said Lee County has done that, and some students eligible for the basic schools have chosen regular public schools instead.

She defended the basic-schools plan as having students’ best interests at heart. “The intent isn’t to isolate them or get them away from other students,” she said, “but to give them smaller classes and to give them more attention.”

School officials began planning for the basic schools in the spring, when they realized Florida soon would release its list of schools not making adequate yearly progress on test scores, as required by the federal law.

Twenty-three of Lee County’s 73 public schools did not make adequate progress, Ms. Jones said. Thirteen of those 23 met almost all the criteria for making their goals, and most fared well on state report cards, she added.

Still, the district had to offer students from the 23 schools transfer options for the 2004-05 school year. Lee County already allows students to choose their schools within three large attendance zones.

A New Focus

Ms. Jones said she had heard no local criticism of the basic schools.

“We sincerely hope that this type of individual program will be really diagnostic, and will really target the students’ deficiencies and help them to improve their reading skills,” she said.

For the vast majority of students who attend Lee County’s regular schools, a focus on reading and writing in all courses will be one of the district’s top goals this school year, Ms. Jones added.

The basic schools seem to be starting slowly.

Though classes were scheduled to begin this week, Ms. Pottorf still was hiring teachers for the program last week. Also, the county school board had not yet officially hired Ms. Pottorf to direct the basic schools. She also oversees charter schools in the district.

The district will monitor the program carefully as it proceeds, Ms. Jones said.

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