"In Need Of Improvement", State Department of Education Notifies School Superintendent

In a letter written by the Schools of the Tarrytowns Superintendent Howard Smith, addressed to teachers prior to the start of the school year, he noted that "back-to-school letters should be written with the intent of having an uplifting and inspirational effect." He went on to say, " Please bear with me as I start out on a somewhat somber note." That somber note had been provided earlier in the summer when the State Department of Education (SED) had notified Smith that one or more schools in the district definitely or potentially would be a school in need of improvement or a school requiring academic progress in 2006-07.

Those schools — Washington Irving School (Grades 4-6), Sleepy Hollow Middle School and the High School — were listed as being "At Risk for Giving Choice" due to the fact that they failed to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) on one or more accountability measures in 2004-05.

The annual "Accountability Status Report" issued by the SED indicated that 4th and 8th grade Limited English Proficiency (LEP) student performance on the 2005 English Language Arts assessment along with 8th grade LEP performance on the 2005 Math assessment, did not hit the annual yearly progress mark. Hispanic and economically disadvantaged 8th graders, as a group, did not meet English Language Arts targets as well.

Accordingly, Superintendent Smith’s four-page letter stated, "If student performance on the 2006 assessment, which will be expanded to include the entire grades 3-8 assessment program, does not hit the established targets for the year, the designation of these schools will shift to ‘Must Give Choice.’" What that means for the Tarrytowns Union Free School District is that in a school district with a neighborhood school model, we would have to allow students in a "School in Need of Improvement" to transfer to a "School of Good Standing" elsewhere in the district, upon parent request. Mr. Smith added, "This designation would also trigger a sequence of other potential consequences as well."

School choice and vouchers (which translate to dollars) given to parents who decide to move their children from one school district to another, is a very real issue within the United States. Superintendent Smith is fully aware of that reality and wrote, "In order for our school district to continue being perceived as a viable choice, we must be particularly attentive to the needs of two very different ‘at-risk’ groups of students. One group obviously consists of our English Language Learners, and in some cases our Hispanic population at large, who are failing to meet our assigned proficiency targets on state assessments." The second group of students, according to Smith, are "those that tend to learn more quickly than the rate for which the general pace of instruction is geared and who are capable of going beyond the scope of the general curriculum, [and who] can be ‘at-risk’ in a model like ours that largely defers choice in terms of student groupings until the high school years." Therein lies one of the problems which more and more parents are becoming aware of. Smith noted, "The parents of our higher functioning students can become anxious about our commitment to meeting the needs of their children, given the demand of our accountability for addressing the needs of the first group."

With the school choice movement gaining momentum, the Superintendent mentioned that it may not be too long before Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow parents are offered financial support for choosing to send their children to another public or private school. He wrote, "The parents of our English Language Learners are not likely to exercise that choice, even though the performance of their children would be triggering the requirement that we offer choice. However, to the extent that the parents of our highest functioning students perceive their children to be ‘at-risk’, they may be tempted to exercise their choice."

With a High/Middle School renovation project underway which will include Washington Irving as well and cost $90,000,000., when all the bonds are repaid, what is in store for the Tarrytowns Union Free School District ? What will the student population be comprised of in the future? With governments deciding on making school choice money available to parents, Smith sees the potential for this "unfolding in our district." He wrote, "We cannot get so caught up in the challenge of serving our struggling learners that we fail to place sufficient emphasis on the needs of the students whose intellect provides an upward pulling effect on everyone around them (including the teacher)."

True to his word, Superintendent Smith’s letter had a somber note to it. Certainly his hope was for teachers and parents to feel confident about the School District. He closed his letter by thanking educators for choosing the District and asked them remain focused on helping parents feel that they have made "a good choice too."

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About the Author: Robert Bonvento