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Franken hears from school leaders

Massy Toward shares a smile with Minnesota senator Al Franken at Bemidji's J.W. Smith Elementary School last week. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

When U.S. Sen. Al Franken toured Bemidji's J.W. Smith Elementary School on Friday, he was impressed when he saw third-graders reading to kindergarteners in the school auditorium. Their cheerful faces made him grin from ear-to-ear.

But in a meeting with area school leaders afterward, Franken found their concerns were no laughing matter.

Over-testing, unfunded federal mandates, special education and teacher pay came into the limelight as leaders turned to the senator, pleading re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also referred to as No Child Left Behind.

"One of the things that has to change with (NCLB) is punishing schools that need the most help," Franken said.

In January, Cass Lake-Bena High School was named one of the outstanding high schools in America by U.S. News & World Report.

Three weeks later, Principal Pernell Knutson said she received a letter from the Minnesota Department of Education stating the school was rated in the top 30 underperforming schools in the state.

"Our staff does an outstanding job," Knutson said. "But one week they're told they're doing a great job and then a few weeks later they're told 50 percent of them may not have a job. It's not right."

"It's so backwards that it's laughable," Franken. "That is one of the starkest examples of how the benchmarks are unaligned."

Kathy Palm, Bemidji Schools curriculum director, voiced her concerns over the penalties schools receive for not making Annual Yearly Progress.

Schools that do not make AYP for two years in a row must use 20 percent of their Title I funding for transportation.

"In Bemidji, that means we cut staff so we can use that money for transporting kids to different schools. Most parents don't want their kids to go to another school," Palm said.

Other leaders told Franken their concerns about teachers and the lack of motivation they receive once AYP testing results come back.

"People come into schools and are told, 'No matter how hard you work, by 2014, you will fail. There is no way for you to succeed.'" said Bemidji Schools director of human resources Jordan Hickman. "Under current (NCLB), you are guaranteeing failure when you walk in the door. What does that do to that passion and motivation that teachers come in with?"

"With all the baggage that we're talking about, why would our brightest and best students become our next teachers?" asked Red Lake Principal Ev Arnold.

Bemidji Schools Superintendent Jim Hess said one of part of NCLB that causes him grief is testing handicapped students.

"Why are we drilling our handicapped children with testing? If it it's not in their individual plan, it's not going to benefit them," Hess said.

. "I don't they should be subjected to that kind of treatment."

Tami Weiss, principal of Bemidji Alternative Education, said students in alternative education who have typically have not been successful in school find it difficult to prove they are advancing academically on tests.

"This has them up for more and more failure. Academic success should be judged by moving students forward and using a growth model."

Franken suggested teachers who work in high-needs schools should have financial rewards for doing so.

He told the school leaders that collecting data is important in measuring academic achievement, but said he is frustrated with the kinds of tests administered by the NCLB.

"Teaching to the test is bad for the teacher and bad for the kids," Franken said. "Every kid has to learn how to read, write and to use math. But there are other kinds of intelligence. Those skills are also taught in other ways."

"We've been paying a lot attention to health care over the last year and very little to education," Franken said.