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Defining 'Failing' 

Naylor Middle School awaits its fate after being labeled as underperforming

An Arizona Daily Star front page last October featured a large, bold headline: "Naylor labeled as 'failing'; Pima schools better overall."

Three months later, Naylor Middle School students, parents, teachers and administrators await the outcome of a Jan. 24 meeting which will help establish the school's future--and some of them are questioning the whole concept of school labeling.

"It was very demoralizing for the teachers and staff," says Dea Salter, principal supervisor for the region of the Tucson Unified School District which includes Naylor.

Naylor Principal Don Calhoun adds about the "failing" label: "It had minimal impact on the students, but some of them did take it personally. We told them they weren't failures.

"The teachers took it really hard, but knew it was coming. ... Maybe the one who took it the hardest was myself."

Naylor had already been identified by the Arizona Department of Education for two consecutive years as an "underperforming" school. When test scores and other criteria for the 2005-2006 school year were also unsatisfactory, the "failing" label was a given.

As a result of the designation, during the past two months, officials from the state Department of Education have been visiting Naylor. Next week, they'll be back again, bringing with them their conclusions about what should happen at the school, located on South Columbus Boulevard south of 22nd Street.

Steve Holmes, director of school improvement for TUSD, lists three conditions the state may impose on Naylor. The first is to ask for the removal of the principal; the second is to link up Calhoun with a mentor; the third is to provide mentors to teachers.

"It's highly unlikely they'll replace the principal," Holmes predicts, since Calhoun has only been at the school since July. In a similar, earlier case, Holmes says, the state provided an assistant coach.

Calhoun says "it's hard to guess" about what will happen on Jan. 24.

Naylor was the only school in metropolitan Tucson last year to be labeled "failing," and there are several possible explanations. Salter points out high poverty rates around the school, combined with the poor English-language skills of some of the immigrant children who attend Naylor.

Former Naylor teacher Neal Rochlin reiterates this last point, criticizing TUSD for locating a refugee-student program at the school in the past. This year, however, that program has been moved.

Rochlin also blasts the district for directing "smart kids" to other middle schools.

"Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer and the TUSD Governing Board need to take responsibility," he says.

Rochlin believes the district requires a new leader. "The people of Tucson have been accepting failure as the status quo. TUSD needs a fresh perspective."

Calhoun points out that since the "failing" label was given to Naylor, the school has received extra help. Despite that, he stresses: "The teachers still feel they're under a lot of pressure."

While they disagree about some issues, all of those associated with Naylor concur on one point: Labeling schools isn't a good idea.

"I don't agree with labeling," Calhoun says simply, while Rochlin believes the practice hurts education.

Salter says: "The positive about it is that the state is looking at the academic achievements of everyone. On the other hand, (labeling) places a large burden on schools with many English-language learners."

Holmes observes: "I'm not a big proponent of labeling, since a school can be making progress but still not match up to the standards. That can become frustrating and lower morale."

Those standards depend upon who does the judging. The Arizona Department of Education uses one set of labels; the federal government, under the Bush's administration's "No Child Left Behind" legislation, uses another.

"Sometimes, they send mix messages," Holmes says. "It can be confusing for parents, since a school may be labeled 'underperforming' (by the state) but making adequate yearly progress (under 'No Child Left Behind'), or vice versa."

For Naylor, that confusion is highlighted by the information shown about the school on the Arizona Department of Education's Web site. For both 2003-2004 and the following school year, it lists Naylor as "underperforming." Yet according to the federal government, Naylor met its "Adequate Yearly Progress" goals for 2004-2005.

Not only do the educational standards for the two accountability systems differ; the repercussions of not meeting them also vary. Holmes explains that Arizona's method places decision-making for "failing" schools with the Department of Education, while "'No Child Left Behind' has progressive sanctions for restructuring (a school), and it's up to the district to decide."

Amy Rezzonico, press secretary for the Arizona Department of Education, says: "We tell people to focus on the state label. It's more fair and accurate. 'No Child Left Behind' is very punitive. There are 300 ways to fail."

What administrators of the Amphitheater and Sunnyside school districts think about the practice of labeling is unknown. Officials from neither returned phone calls seeking comment.

For his part, Calhoun remains upbeat about Naylor despite the "failing" grade.

"I have optimism we're going to turn it around," he says.

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