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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

Page 3 of 5

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.

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