LTE 12-13-07 How well are we meeting the needs of the overall student population?

http://www.oakridger.com/stories/121307/opi_225055606.shtml
“Oak Ridge Schools only care about the best of the best.” “Unless you are super intelligent or a superstar on the football team, you are nobody in Oak Ridge Schools.” Have you ever heard statements like these? Have you ever said them yourself? Have you ever had an experience that supported such opinions?

Generalized statements like these are unfair to the fine individuals that work for our school system. Personally, my children have benefited tremendously from their Oak Ridge education. But I have had encounters and heard stories from others that lend some credibility to the notion that an “elitist” mentality exists within our community and schools.

For a moment, though, let’s set aside personal opinion and consult some external sources to see how we fair in comparison to our own self-perceptions in an attempt to answer the question “Just how well are we meeting the needs of the overall student population?”

First consider Newsweek’s rankings (of high schools based on the Challenge Index). For many years, we have taken such pride in our status on this list that we posted it on a sign near our city’s entrance. But for the last 6 years, we’ve consistently dropped in rank each year behind a total of 341 other schools. With such a trend, it doesn’t seem unrealistic that we may eventually drop from the rankings all together in the near future.

Second, Oak Ridge High School recently joined 139 other TN schools (some 8%) with a “high priority” Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) status (http://www.state.tn.us/education/nclb/ayp/doc/School%202007-08%20High%20Priority%2003AUG2007.pdf.) What this essentially means is that we failed No Child Left Behind, albeit by one student as I understand.
Third, U.S. News and World Report has recently released their own ranking of America’s Best High Schools (http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/high-schools/2007/11/29/americas-best-high-schools.html) with the goal of determining which schools “set the best example of how to prepare students to achieve their post-graduation goals.” With over 18,700 schools analyzed from only 40 states, 32 Tennessee schools made bronze or better. Some East TN schools that made the grade include Gatlinburg, Halls, Oakdale, and Morristown. Missing from the list all together? Oak Ridge.

Granted, there may be some aspects of each of these assessments that may justify some of our shortcomings. However flawed the criteria, one would think that it had to have been uniformly applied to all of the schools considered. With an appreciation for his individuality, there are very few, if any, excuses my own child could provide that would prompt me to simply dismiss a failing report card grade. I strive to instill in him the value of taking responsibility for one’s actions without excuse. I expect no less of those I entrust to educate him.

I’ve expressed the following views in the past: All of our children benefit from the 3rd highest paid teachers in the state; all of our children benefit from the highest spending ratio per student in the state (over $11,000 per student); and all of our children benefit from receiving one of the best educations found in the country.

But I’m starting to wonder: Are we truly affording the same opportunities to all of our students?

I can’t begin to believe that we are when we can’t even ensure safe passage for all to and from school. Please don’t misunderstand; it is not my goal to place blame. But if change is to occur, we have to start asking some tough questions. We have to identify exactly where we are deficient and why – in all areas – be they academic, safety, or others. Budgetary constraints are the reasons cited by the schools for cutting transportation. They remain an obstacle to date. One obvious questions asked by many is this: How can we afford a $55 million high school yet not spare a few hundred thousand for full transportation? I have yet to hear even an attempt to answer that one, but I do have a few more of my own. Not the least of which is this: How come headlines such as “Schools Need $47 million in Upgrades” appear on the front page of recent local papers but statements like “Schools Actively Trying to Reinstate Buses” are nowhere to be found?

We pride ourselves on exceeding standards, on expecting more. It’s time we re-prioritize those standards and determine what is realistically achievable for the majority of our children, not the minority. Let’s not simply expect more, let’s demand more – not only of our government, but also of ourselves.

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