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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

All this week members of Congress have been meeting with educators and other officials. They're trying to figure out how to retool the No Child Left Behind law to better address a stubborn national achievement gap. At just about every level of education from kindergarten to college, poor and minority students still score well behind their white and more affluent classmates. Today, we begin a series of stories looking at that achievement gap.

NPR's Larry Abramson went to Seattle to learn about one district's attempts to solve the problem. And he joins us now in the studio. Larry, just how bad is this problem?

LARRY ABRAMSON: Michele, let's take math scores for nine-year-olds. Black kids today score where white kids scored in 1971. And in the meantime, of course, scores for white kids have been improving quite a bit. Now, over the time period that I'm talking about, the gap between black and white scores has narrowed somewhat from 35 to 23 points; smaller, but still very large.

NORRIS: Big problem. What can one individual school district do to solve the problem?

ABRAMSON: They usually go at it with resources, Michele. They try to steer more money and more help toward poor and minority kids. So to see how this looks, I spent some time in three Seattle schools.

ABRAMSON: In the library of Bryant Elementary on Seattle's north end, Principal Linda Robinson is speaking to about 70 prospective parents. Seattle parents can choose any school, but it's easy to see why many choose Bryant.

Ms. LINDA ROBINSON (Principal, Bryant Elementary School): So I would urge you as you're seeing the building and as you...

ABRAMSON: Only a handful of kids here qualified for a free or reduced price lunch, that's the conventional yardstick for measuring poverty in education. As a result, Bryant gets a mere $3,900 per student from the district. Many classes have as many as 30 kids. Parents here must pay if they want full-day kindergarten. But on the upside, parents contribute a lot.

Ms. ROBINSON: Our current PTSA budget - and Steve, feel free - we're at about $200,000.

ABRAMSON: The money provides the kind of enrichment programs that affluent parents care about.

Ms. ROBINSON: ...technology, it is the computer lab. It's the new Yamaha keyboards in the music room. It's fifth-grade camp. All of our fifth-graders go to Island Wood. It's someone to coordinate our after-school homework center.

ABRAMSON: Robinson refers to Bryant as a happy school. That applies to the kids and to the teachers.

Ms. JUDY TOWLER (Teacher, Bryant Elementary School): Well, what should we do with Abby's video, I asked. Dad shook his head. God bless her, she really did try, but you saw the tape, Noah.

ABRAMSON: Fourth-grade teacher Judy Towler doesn't have to waste much time on discipline. Her kids settle down right away when she reads aloud to them from Carl Hiaasen's book, "Flush." Over the entire previous school year, Bryant did not have to suspend a single student. When it's time to go outside, kids form a neat line behind Towler.

Ms. TOWLER: This is definitely the kind of school where, if you land here, you know you do not want to leave here because the kids are so - they come to school so ready to learn and so cooperative, and the parents are so supportive. Of course, that's why I've stayed here 15 years, and I plan to retire from here.

ABRAMSON: Towler used to teach in a low-income school on the city's south end. She says day-to-day struggles there were taking a toll on her health. It got so bad she thought about leaving the profession, until her seniority helped get her a job at Bryant.

Unidentified Child: And I will forget the D ...

ABRAMSON: In the afternoon, fourth and fifth-graders get together with the adult mentor, helping them prepare for the school's science fair. Fourth-grader Renata Daniel(ph) is part of a group investigating a question that's puzzled scientists for ages.

Ms. RENATA DANIEL (Fourth-grader, Bryant Elementary School): We're testing four different brands of grape juice on a white shirt. We're going to stain it, and then we're going to wash the stain out and see which stain was the darkest.

Unidentified Child #2: Yuck.

ABRAMSON: Many schools do science projects like this, but Bryant can recruit some elite mentors from a well-educated cadre of parents and from nearby high-tech companies. The grape juice team leader, Andrew Chang, works for a biotech company called ZymoGenetics. He says his company wanted to get involved with the community...

Mr. ANDREW CHANG (ZymoGenetics): But also Immunex at the time, a competing biotech company, had scientists coming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: So it's a little bit of a competition. We wanted to get more scientists involved. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ABRAMSON: You can't count on that kind of parental involvement at Madrona Elementary in central Seattle. So the Seattle school district sends more money, about $1,000 more per kid, to this K-8 school. Kaaren Andrews, the principal, stands in the front door greeting kids. She is six feet tall, so she has to bend double to give hugs. She does this a lot.

Ms. KAAREN ANDREWS (Principal, Madrona Elementary School): You have a gold Panther shirt, come here. I wasn't here on Friday. Give me a hug, Janelle.

ABRAMSON: A shirt with the gold Madrona Panther is a coveted reward for high achievers at this school. Just about every child here needs that encouragement. Seventy percent of the kids at Madrona are poor enough to get free or reduced price lunches. Andrews tries to cajole one reluctant student to attend an after-school program so he'll pass the state reading test.

Ms. ANDREWS: I really want you to be in excel(ph), because you're doing great.

Unidentified Boy: So I'll do it, but I don't really want to go.

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, it's just that you're - in reading - you're a great reader, but you're just right below. But I want to be ready. This is for kids like you who are either right above or right...

Unidentified Boy: No.

ABRAMSON: It's a tough sell, but Andrews keeps pushing. It takes a lot of time here to persuade kids to take advantage of the extra help available. Andrews writes grants, she brings in outside experts, anything she can afford in order to improve performance.

Ms. ANDREWS: Dollars are attached to kids right here. There's different kids in each grade level that have different special ed capacities here, the different ethnicities of the kids. And if you look how much things cost, this is fairly interesting because...

ABRAMSON: In her office, Kaaren Andrews leafs through her budget. The Seattle school district gives Madrona extra money to deal with specific problems: poverty, kids learning English, and those with special education needs. For many of these problems, Kaaren Andrews ends up spending more than she receives. Take her special-education team, for example.

Ms. ANDREWS: So we get $123,000. With that we have to buy a teacher and an instructional assistant, and we have to buy all the supplies. It ends up actually adding up to the more than the $123,000 that you get from them.

ABRAMSON: That eats into school funds needed for other programs. Andrews uses the extra money she has to hire a specialist to work with kids who are having trouble. Language arts teacher Darice Johnson says students here also need help well beyond the academics.

Ms. DARICE JOHNSON (Teacher, Madrona Elementary School): And here it's truly you're the doctor, you're the nurse, you're the mom, you're the dad, you're the teacher, you're the psychologist.

ABRAMSON: That drives some teachers away. Madrona has a less-experienced staff and a higher turnover than Bryant. Many districts are dangling financial incentives to lure experienced teachers to schools with needy populations. But in Seattle, teachers get paid the same no matter where they work. I asked Darice Johnson if that's fair.

Ms. JOHNSON: I don't know if it's fair or not.

ABRAMSON: Don't you think it might - there are probably other Darice Johnsons out there who might come here if they were offered a couple thousand bucks.

Ms. JOHNSON: You know they probably would. And I hope that they would come not only for the money, but for the love of it.

ABRAMSON: No Child Left Behind has turned a bright spotlight on schools like Madrona. Their test scores are monitored like the vital signs of a patient in intensive care. Kaaren Andrews requires that all of her teachers submit a lesson plan for the entire week. She wants to know what they're doing and when. Because, she says, in a school like this every minute counts. Not all the teachers are crazy about Andrews's aggressive style, off mic they say it's kind of heavy-handed. But many welcome it.

Ms. ERNESTINE RUTLEDGE (Teacher, Madrona Elementary School): Do you know why she's asking that? It's because our scores are in the toilet.

ABRAMSON: First-grade teacher Ernestine Rutledge.

Ms. RUTLEDGE: She knows if we do that, then we have a guide. We're going to follow them. She's given us every book we need. She's given us every reading -teacher's guide that we need. We have no excuse.

ABRAMSON: But plenty of teachers have no desire to work in that kind of hothouse atmosphere. The Peace Corps ethic, as some derisively call it, isn't enough to attract dedicated teachers to many struggling schools. Seattle's new academic officer, Carla Santorno, says the current emphasis on seniority pushes teachers away from challenging schools.

Ms. CARLA SANTORNO (Chief Academic Officer, Seattle Public Schools): My basic belief is that we need to abandon the incremental steps system, period.

ABRAMSON: Santorno used to work in the Denver public schools, where teachers get what some refer to as combat pay, more money for moving to low-income schools. She wants Seattle to move in that direction

Ms. SANTORNO: Yeah. I think it totally makes sense to build a district culture that says, if you teach at Madrona, you must be a better teacher than when you teach at Bryant.

ABRAMSON: By that thinking, it takes a very special person indeed to teach at Rainier View Elementary, a school on Seattle's southern edge.

(Soundbite of intercom bell)

Ms. CATHY THOMPSON (Principal, Rainier View Elementary School): Good morning, Rainier View. Welcome to school and Happy Valentine's Day. I hope you're all...

ABRAMSON: Principal Cathy Thompson says Valentine's Day is a culturally neutral holiday, one she feels comfortable sharing with this very diverse bunch of students. The biggest minority group here, Somali refugees. Each class contains a smattering of girls in elaborately decorated headscarves. Kids here get about $6,100 per student; compare that to $3,900 at Bryant Elementary.

That money helps reduce class sizes, but it does not produce test scores even close to those at Bryant. Only one in three fourth graders here can pass the state's basic math test. So Cathy Thompson says the school is focusing on something she believes is more important than money.

Ms. THOMPSON: The relationship that occurs between a teacher and child or between a school and a family is absolutely critical to the child's ability to learn.

ABRAMSON: Rainier View is part of Seattle's latest effort to fight the achievement gap. The goal is to provide low-income kids with a seamless track to high school and, hopefully, college. Teachers visit kids' homes to learn more about the cultures they come from. Thompson says the point is to provide some consistency for kids whose lives are often in turmoil.

Ms. THOMPSON: A high degree of attrition. So kids are moving all over. Then, as they move to middle school, does the middle school know what we're doing, and do we know what they're doing?

ABRAMSON: It's too soon to say whether this program has helped or not. But for these teachers, it doesn't matter, because this school has been struck by the educational equivalent of a lightning bolt. Rainier View is closing.

Ms. THOMPSON: Good morning, everybody. Let's come together, please.

ABRAMSON: Cathy Thompson stands in the school library early one morning, and gathers her flock of teachers and staff around her. They're here to learn how to pack up their things before Rainier View shuts down at the end of the year. The reasons for the closure are complex. But the impact on students and staff is immediate, and they don't like it.

Ms. ZOE MCGUIRE (Teacher, Rainier View): So much of this stuff is just happening to us. And we show up to work on Monday, and there's the dumpsters. And I can't - I just wonder, like, where is the support for our families and for our kids while we...

ABRAMSON: Zoe McGuire, in her second year here, quickly chokes up. How, she asks, should she protect her kids from the trauma of the move? Most students will move to another school, but many teachers here don't have much seniority, so they will be scattered around the district. As the meeting breaks up, McGuire says the looming closure is disrupting every facet of school life.

Ms. MCGUIRE: There's no support of how to go through this, and how to really -honestly, how will we teach our kids to the end of the year? They're already -I mean, our school is kind of - in my opinion - in crisis right now, just the behavior, because some of that, I think, has to do - they know we're done.

(Soundbite of squealing)

ABRAMSON: To be fair, schools are closing all over Seattle as they are in other shrinking urban districts. They have closed in wealthy neighborhoods and poor ones. The difference is that when Rainier View closes, it will take a toll on kids who are already far behind.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, so big. She would love them.

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