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Finishing First 

While grown-ups worry about standardized tests and school funding, two first-graders show education's not that simple

Callie is conflicted. The first-grader at Vanderlyn Elementary is acutely aware of the small amount of friction in her life -- like the fact that she mostly likes to read except for those times when she doesn't. But there's also some discord surrounding her to which she's oblivious. In a state that's been consistently ranked as having some of the poorest performing schools in the nation, she's one charmed kid.

On a spring afternoon, Callie's mother Andrea and two other moms are waiting at the bus stop to walk their children the half-block home. Callie gleefully describes her day from the moment she steps off the bus. Her brothers stop to wrestle on a neighbor's green carpet lawn as Callie continues chattering with Andrea, passing the basketball hoop in the driveway toward the front door.

The houses in the Dunwoody neighborhood aren't cookie-cutter, but they are variations on the same four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath plus bonus room theme. They're homes for people who aren't exactly wealthy but are far from struggling. Andrea says the neighborhood attracts people who look for houses the way she and her husband Jim did; they find good schools first and then look for someplace to live nearby.

After a short intermission to change into gym clothes, Callie bounds into the living room to discuss the father who took his turn addressing her class for career week. Her rocking chair's in constant motion, and she explores gravity by hooking her legs around its backrest and dropping her head over the edge of the seat.

"He gives people money," she explains. "Like if your house burns down or something and you don't have enough money to buy a new house."

Callie's own dad is a computer technology consultant, but he can't come to her class for career day because he just started a new job. Andrea explains this after Callie moans that her dad is the only one who isn't coming.

Tossing out a few more stories and losing a tooth to a chewy granola bar, Callie remembers she has doubts about this newspaper article business, or at least the part that involves strangers visiting her class at Vanderlyn.

"I was thinking that if you come," she says, "my friends might laugh at me."

After some deliberation, a plan unfolds.

"Say hi to everybody, including me, so they won't know you're there for me," she suggests. There's a nook in back of the class that's used as a math and reading area. It's not too conspicuous, and she can offer the person sitting there a sly hello while nobody's looking.

"Like this," she says as she demonstrates a conspiratorial smile and a wave of the hand.

She then returns to playing host.

Pulling family photos and old schoolwork from a large credenza, Callie quickly passes along a story written and pasted onto construction paper. But a photo has to be pondered.

She cocks her head to one side and hedges. "I don't want to show you this one," she says. "I look like a dork."

The photo was taken last Thanksgiving while she was in kindergarten, she explains before eventually handing it over. Her cheeks are flushed pink and her mouth is settled in a purposeful bow. Her brown eyes shine into the camera lens. If Gap Kids sold tepees and paper pilgrim outfits, this would be the ad.

In a small living room in another part of DeKalb County, pictures of two young boys hang on almost every wall. Godofredo and his brother are the stars of the family; his parents are the paparazzi. The only wall that doesn't have an image of Godofredo (pronounced go-FRAY-doe) is the one behind the sofa. The space is dominated by a large framed poster emblazoned with the name of the family's new home -- Atlanta -- over a view of the city's skyline.

The view from the family's apartment, however, isn't quite so grand. There's not much to see from their second-story window besides asphalt and aged cars. They live in a tiny but immaculate two-bedroom flat in a complex off Buford Highway.

Neither of Godofredo's parents speaks English, but in their neighborhood it's not a prerequisite. There's a tinienda and a zapateria nearby; only Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants sit between the taquerias. Their apartment is a short walk from the bus station that brings ever more immigrants to the neighborhood.

Even though it's smaller than the living rooms of some Dunwoody homes, the apartment seems more upscale when coupled with formal Latino hospitality; both parents greet visitors at the door, introduce themselves by first and last name, and sit rigidly side by side on the couch.

Esteban is 25 and Jenny is 24. As with most Americans their age, the world seems full of possibility. The couple emigrated four years ago from Oaxaca, Mexico, a city popular with tourists but where many natives are mired in poverty. Though their lives have improved since they were in Mexico, Esteban and Jenny are still at the starting line of the American dream.

The couple is pragmatic about prospects for furthering their own education. They rarely have time to study the videotapes they bought to improve their English. "For us it's difficult because we have work and home to take care of," Esteban says through a translator. "It's difficult to do everything at the same time."

For now, the possibility they envision is for their children.

"We see that he's making progress, that he's trying and that he's learning," Esteban says of his eldest son. In Mexico, Godofredo may not have had the opportunity to learn so much so quickly. "The difference that I really notice is they have a lot more patience with the kids here."

Esteban, who works the day shift at a local construction site, and Jenny, who stays home to care for the couple's two boys, recall their own schooldays in Oaxaca, where teachers weren't as attentive as Godofredo's teacher at Cary Reynolds Elementary. So when Cary Reynolds began an eight-week program to encourage parents to improve their relationships with their children and get more involved in their education, Esteban and Jenny rarely missed a meeting.

The program involved eating dinner at Cary Reynolds and working on a family art project. It sounds simple, but to parents with little exposure to American schools, it was a chance to turn an intimidating environment into a non-threatening one.

Godofredo pads into the living room while his dad is talking. Seeing visitors, he lodges himself between his father and the back of the loveseat. He will neither say hello nor answer questions. His father dislodges the small boy and tries to coax him to speak. But he ducks behind his father again before returning to his room.

"He doesn't like to talk a lot," Jenny explains, "when he doesn't know people."

In 1965, the federal government funded a study by the late James Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to look at the effects of segregation on learning. Coleman discovered something surprising. Learning was less about the resources inside the schoolhouse and more about factors outside the classroom: the income level in a child's neighborhood, the amount of racial and economic integration and, predominantly, the role of the parents.

The Coleman Report is still widely respected today and, though it has its detractors, is considered to be the grandfather of modern education sociology. Coleman looked beyond issues like class size and school funding and focused on the effects of factors like personal wealth and family life on academic achievement. More than anything else, Coleman found, those factors determined success in school.

The Coleman report concluded that children from low-income families who attended schools populated mostly by students from low-income families didn't do as well academically as their more financially stable counterparts did. But it's not just poverty that prevents achievement, according to Coleman; it's also the sacrifices in time that parents must make to put food on the table. Children from poorer families tend to spend less time reading and more time watching television, and they often receive less help with homework from their parents.

All of that lost time with Mom and Dad adds up -- especially since other research shows parents are the most important factor in determining whether their children finish high school and go on to college.

Some days, Callie rides to school on the yellow bus that passes through her Dunwoody neighborhood. On others, she gets to ride to school in her mother's shiny SUV, packed with sports equipment, snacks and a cooler. Andrea volunteers at Vanderlyn as often as four days a week, depending on what the school needs. So taking Callie to school is just as easy as sending her on the bus.

The school itself doesn't look much different than any other elementary school. It's a low brick and concrete building surrounded by a lawn that's lush in some places and worn by traffic in others. The kids all wear some variation on the uniform adopted by DeKalb County last year.

Other than the upper-middle-class residential neighborhood that surrounds the school, the only tip-off that Vanderlyn has one of the school district's wealthiest demographics are the lines of SUVs and minivans that inch around the parking lot, waiting to unload children at the curb.

Vanderlyn has a strong PTA and legions of volunteers who organize functions or appear in first-grade classes as the "mystery reader." The "mystery reader" is usually a stay-at-home mom who stops in and reads. The class is surprised daily.

Except when Callie's mother is supposed to be the mystery. She volunteers so much that no one is surprised to see her anymore.

In Callie's classroom, a row of paper clocks are labeled with the different subjects the class is studying. The clocks help kids remember that music, for instance, is at 9:50 a.m. on Thursdays while Spanish is at the same time on Tuesdays.

Large colored crayons also serve as whimsical reminders to help kids retain their Español, with labels spelling out each color: verde, azul, roho, blanco.

Today the class is practicing songs for an upcoming performance, and Callie's teacher, Ms. Patrick, is attempting to get them to sing in the right pitch. They go through the songs three times before she gives up. Luckily the gig is invitation only, and the guest list is limited to those who will be gushing fans forever: their mothers.

When class is almost over, Ms. Patrick scans the rows of students, asking each child if his or her mother is planning to attend the appreciation ceremony the following week. As her classmates RSVP on their moms' behalf, Callie plants her knees in her chair for leverage and waves her hand at Ms. Patrick. Finally she gets tired of waiting and blurts out, "My mom's coming."

When the tally is completed, only two kids in a class of 23 say their moms can't make the afternoon event.

Godofredo speaks English with the careful cadence of a novice: Simple statements and smiles fill the spaces where words will be someday -- once he's learned the right ones. His class at Cary Reynolds resembles a mini United Nations; there are representatives from Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and India.

The artwork on the class's walls is just as global, with something to remind many of the students of the lands from which they emigrated. A variety of lentils and spices glued to a poster-board represent India. It hangs next to a travel poster of Mexico. There also are photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Montezuma and dignitaries not as easily recognizable.

Cary Reynolds is in the same school district as Vanderlyn -- not that you would notice. Just five-and-a-half miles southeast of Vanderlyn, Cary Reynolds has a hard time getting most parents to parent-teacher conferences, much less to volunteer. Too many of them have long hours to work.

Few students in Godofredo's class were fluent in English when the last school year started, and they've wrestled with learning in their own way. Godofredo tears through fun assignments so he's the first in the class to finish. It's as if he's decided that since he has to struggle with reading and writing, he's going to be first in everything else, says his teacher, Mr. Ozier.

Cary Reynolds marks the end of the school year with an "International Day" parade. Today the class is making handmade flags that represent Italy. Godofredo's in the back of the room, launching a red, construction paper jet. When it takes flight, he sprouts a smile that slowly radiates, like pleasure seeping from some secret hiding place.

The second glide catches his teacher's attention, and future flights are abruptly cancelled.

When Godofredo's desk is clean and his book bag packed, he comes over to show off his flag of Italy. "See what I made," he says.

He speaks barely above a whisper and his gaze modestly shifts from his handiwork to the floor. Enthusiastic praise draws a smile.

The next class, music, is 45 minutes of squirming through a movie followed by 15 minutes of dancing. When the teacher cranks up a meringue, several girls pair up to dance. The music is as familiar to them as the electric slide is to many American wedding receptions, and the children move their hips and feet with the kind of expertise that comes with practice and tradition. After a long day of struggling with English, the girls sing along to the record, with ease, in Spanish.

When George Bush took office, overhauling America's educational system became one of his top priorities. His "No Child Left Behind" legislation heralded the largest change in public education since the civil rights era. It also gained bipartisan support for its laudable goals: promising to put highly qualified teachers in the classroom and holding schools accountable for raising the academic bar.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to show rising test scores every year. If low-income schools that receive federal funds fail to show rising scores two years in a row, they're labeled "needs improvement." Schools that need improvement must offer students the opportunity either to transfer to a better school or to receive private tutoring paid for by the school district. And if a school fails to improve for more than three years, it's at risk for a range of punitive actions, including a complete change of staff or the possibility of losing federal funds.

No Child Left Behind sets the goals for schools to improve, but how to achieve them is left to individual states. For instance, the federal law requires schools to adopt stricter standards for passing a student to the next grade. In Georgia, third-graders must pass standardized tests to be promoted to fourth grade -- regardless of their grades or performance during the year.

It's difficult to find anyone who would disagree with the premise of No Child Left Behind. Improving the quality of education for all children is an inherently popular idea.

What's up for debate is the means of improving it.

Because it schools primarily lower-income children, Cary Reynolds gets money from the federal government, although that's just a fraction of its overall budget. It has been named a "needs improvement" school. Only 48 percent of the students perform at their grade level on standardized tests.

Cary Reynolds Principal Melanie Bilda says she's concerned about the effect Bush's legislation will have on her school. The low percentage of students who pass the standards tests is discouraging for teachers. Bilda says she's devoting a lot of time to "just trying to keep their spirits up."

Next year, the third-graders at Cary Reynolds will have to pass standardized tests in reading and math if they want to graduate to the next grade. With more than half the students already failing, Bilda has a hard time believing that No Child Left Behind will proceed as planned. "I really can't imagine that 52 percent of our students are going to be held back," she says.

Cary Reynolds' failure could also affect schools like Vanderlyn.

It's possible that, in a budget crunch, school districts will have to divert funds from schools like Vanderlyn -- where most students ace the standardized tests -- to pay for improvements at schools like Cary Reynolds. At Vanderlyn only 3 percent of the students scored below average on standardized reading tests, while 87 percent scored above grade level.

While resources may shift within the district to give more help to Cary Reynolds, transferring students out of Cary Reynolds -- as No Child Left Behind permits parents to do -- might create a whole new set of problems.

To prevent high-achieving schools from becoming overcrowded, parents who want to transfer their child from a low-performing school to one that's doing well are given a limited number of choices. In some Georgia school districts, there aren't enough resources to offer the federally mandated transfer at all. So far, none of the parents with kids at Cary Reynolds have requested a transfer.

Bilda admits she doesn't know much about how No Child Left Behind ultimately will affect Cary Reynolds. She says she has no idea how many parents might choose to transfer their students out of the school in the coming years.

Perhaps that's because, as Bilda points out, parents aren't clear on the implications of No Child Left Behind either. Parents are informed by letter of the opportunity to transfer their child or request tutoring. But since some parents aren't able to read in English or in their native language, it's doubtful they fully understand the choices they're offered.

Even if they do understand, there's a disconnect between the perceived quality of a specific school and the school's actual quality. Parents asked to rate their child's school generally find the quality of education favorable. In a poll conducted by the University of Georgia last year, parents gave their children's school an average grade of about a B-minus.

The real flaw of No Child Left Behind is that it ignores what sociologists and common sense have been telling us for years: Improving troubled schools has less to do with what goes on in the classroom than what goes on at home.

But it's easier to address school performance than to tackle poverty. Accomplishing the type of change that is needed to improve students' test scores would require not just a change in the education system, but a change in the way many American lives are lived at home, according to Robert Evans, a school consultant based in Massachusetts and author of The Human Side of School Change.

"We can predict a kid's score ... by just knowing the zip code," says Evans, who works with schools throughout the country on implementing reform plans. "We can see that schools are important, but they're not the most important factor."

While Callie's summer includes a trip to the beach, Godofredo has a different kind of summer planned -- one that will help him start playing catch-up to Callie's head start.

Godofredo's parents are pleased with the education he's getting at Cary Reynolds. But they're aware of the gap between their son and students like Callie. Despite the complexities of federal policy, Godofredo's mother knows what she wants for her 6-year-old: "We're going to give him the best opportunity that we can for him to study."

It seems to be working. A month after the regular school year ended, Godofredo was gushing about summer school. "It's great," he says, his command of English notably improved from two months earlier -- during the school year. He says he's read his favorite book, The Three Little Pigs, at least three times.

More importantly, he's passing his enthusiasm to his little brother. Esteban Jr. can't yet say much in English or Spanish. But thanks to Godofredo, the toddler already has his own favorite books.

Neither boy, however, has gone so far as to choose a college.

Callie -- surely through her parents' influence -- has a very clear picture of her future.

"I'm going to Penn State," she says, naming the school where her parents met as undergraduates. "Because it's a good school and they have a good football team."

Godofredo's parents don't have an alma mater to hype. But they believe their family's values will motivate him to be successful.

Esteban and Jenny want Godofredo to go to college if that's what he wants, but what they really want for him doesn't require a degree. His mother has simple hopes for what her will grow up to be: "Just a good person," she says, "a peaceful person."

rochelle.renford@creativeloafing.com


-- Rochelle Renford

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