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Some see red over Blue Ribbon School change

Every year since 1997, a Hillsborough County school has been recognized as a Blue Ribbon School, most recently Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green elementaries in 2001 and Wilson Middle School in 2002. The prestigious national award identifies schools that are "unusually effective in meeting local, state and national goals and in educating all of their students."

But a change in how schools are judged could end Hillsborough's run of success in the program.

In the past, schools up for the award needed to satisfy a laundry list of criteria that defined excellence. But over the summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige streamlined the standards to just two measures to bring Blue Ribbon into compliance with national "No Child Left Behind" legislation.

Now, Blue Ribbon will honor those schools that "make significant progress in closing the achievement gap or whose students achieve at very high levels," according to the draft application. Schools would qualify for the award if their standardized test scores put them in the top 10 percent of schools in the state or if they have 40 percent or more students from "disadvantaged backgrounds" and have "dramatically improved" student performance.

The latter criteria have not been defined. Regardless, the changes are not going over well in Hillsborough.

Laura McGowan, whose children attend Gorrie Elementary in south Tampa, launched a letter writing campaign opposing the change, and Hillsborough schools Superintendent Earl Lennard has voiced his objections with Paige.

"The No Child Left Behind _ Blue Ribbon Schools Program and the accompanying components appear to emphasize the importance of hard data with very little regard to the importance of the "connecting tissue' that schools must have to truly impact the lives of children," Lennard wrote. "The requirement that a school have a substantial number of disadvantaged students before being considered as a candidate for consideration or score within the top 10 percent of the schools in the state will eliminate many outstanding schools from participation."

Lennard asked that Paige reinstate the old application criteria.

McGowan's approach was even more direct.

"I mailed out letters to all the other 266 principals of the other Blue Ribbon schools across the country," McGowan said. "I asked that they express their concerns to their lawmakers and teachers to not let the Blue Ribbon criteria be changed, to not lower our standards." Gorrie won Blue Ribbon status in 1998.

The criteria then were much more stringent. A school was required to demonstrate:

Strong visionary leadership

A sense of shared purpose among faculty, students, parents and community

A school climate conducive to effective teaching and teacher growth and recognition

An environment that conveys the message that all students can learn

Programs that challenge, gifted, average and at-risk students

Evidence of impressive academic achievement and responsible student behavior

Parents and the broader community actively involved in school affairs

Commitment to an ongoing program of student assessment and school improvements

A "can-do" attitude toward problem solving

"As it is now, each state gets to define "dramatic improvement,' " McGowan said of the new criteria. "As for the 40 percent disadvantaged, what about the 12 percent at Gorrie? Those children don't count? I think we should educate everyone."

Schools like Tampa Palms and Hunter's Green would not qualify under the 40 percent disadvantaged criteria. Those schools, located in well-off suburbs, simply don't have that many disadvantaged students. So now, they are left to qualify under the top 10 percent on state testing criterion.

"My concern is that, on the state level, they have only 11 slots (for applications)," said Betty Lou Turner, principal at Tampa Palms Elementary, which would qualify under the top 10 percent standard. "They will come to school X, Y and Z and say, "You meet the criteria, so therefore you can apply. If they come to me, I have the opportunity of applying. But I don't have the opportunity to apply if they don't solicit me."

Hunter's Green principal Donna Ares is also leery of the Blue Ribbon changes. "I think it knocks out a lot of people if you have to sit back and wait for someone to recognize you," Ares said. "You might be a school that has all the components and all the support, but for some reason or another might not have the marketing skill to get your name out there."

David Thomas, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education, said there has been other negative reaction to the changes, but "I think people are resistant to change no matter the area. We see this as determining how our students are doing in our nation's schools ... to help the schools that need it the most. That's what a lot of federal legislation is about."

_ Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabesptimes.com.

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