The Price of Success

After Parker Elementary succeeded, it lost all its tutors.

School is out and across the street police are patting down a teenager in a red sweatshirt. A nearby woman yells, “He ain’t got no gun!”

Further down the block, Principal Deborah Davis of Parker Elementary school is greeting parents and saying goodbye to some of the school’s 247 students. “Just another day at Parker,” she sighs, looking toward the run-down apartment complex where the event took place.

Parker Elementary School, situated in the rough hills of East Oakland, lacks for many amenities. Yet it has been able to beat the odds and last year raised its Annual Yearly Progress test scores into “the green,” meaning that the school was no longer labeled as needing improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind act.

Yet having shaken loose the stigma that a low-income school in a crime-ridden neighborhood can’t succeed, Parker has a different problem. Its tutors have gone missing.

“When we were told we weren’t eligible … I nearly had a heart attack,” David said.

A short, middle-aged woman with the energy of a prize fighter, Davis was one of the few principals to enthusiastically embrace free tutoring. She credits it with raising her students’ test scores.

Then Parker ran head-on into a Catch-22 of No Child Left Behind. Parker’s students improved enough to take the school off the watch list, but still need help. “Once the school meets their proficiency targets the state doesn’t have to provide that extra aid anymore,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center On Education Policy, a Washington-based educational advocacy group. The problem is that many schools could still use the help.

For example, only 35.2 percent of Parker’s students scored proficient or above in English and 43 percent in math. While this was far better than its score of 29.8 percent in English and 38.9 percent in math the year before, the scores still indicate that many students need extra help.

“It’s a yo-yo effect, in which they help schools go up, and once they go up, they lose aid and go down,” he said. “This is a serious problem.”

While Parker Elementary students have not yet been tested since losing their funding for the supplemental tutors, many parents are worried.

“We still have kids below that testing level who need help,” said Eric Johnson, a former president of the Parker Parent Teacher Association and a long-time parent volunteer. “You’ll always have kids who need help, and you can’t put a price on their education.”

Johnson’s 17-year-old son went to school at Parker. Now, his daughter is just about to graduate.

“She was in tutoring last year and thought it was a waste of time, but it helped her — especially with her reading,” Johnson said.

Without her school’s federally funded tutoring, Davis has managed to secure both private donations and additional funding through the After School Education and Safety Program Act of 2002, also known as California Proposition 49.

The after-school facilitator, Dominique Millette, organized after-school activities from Girls Inc. for the past two years, and she expects Parker’s test scores to remain stable.

Still, that’s no consolation to Lula El, whose child benefited from tutoring in fourth grade. El would like it to continue. “Just because a school meets their required standards is no reason to cut funding,” she said. “That’s no excuse to leave my child behind.”

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