Academy welcomes difficult students

22nd August 2003 at 01:00

President Bush's hardline policies are bringing upheaval to America's schools. They have even embarrassed his brother

"We take all the kids in the community who come to our front door," said Lionel Bordelon, head of Chicago's Kozminski Academy. "But it has strained resources."

Last September, the 535-pupil all African-American primary took 25 new students from academically weaker neighbouring schools - the first wave exercising their right to so-called school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act.

New students have swapped no-frills curricula at their old schools for banks of computers, science and maths laboratories and the opportunity to study a foreign language.

Kozminksi's experience paints a more complex picture than the White House's image of poor pupils being liberated from doomed schools. The school is finding out that when pupils switch they do not leave all their problems behind.

The school lies on the edge of grim housing projects. Here most schools resemble gulags with boarded-up windows, but Kozminski is in a grand Victorian building, like a British town hall.

Most of its students are from the wrong side of the tracks. Yet Kozminski ranks - only just - as an academic success story, narrowly beating local targets for reading and maths. "But there's no way we're out of the woods yet," said Mr Bordelon. He fears struggling new students will drag Kozminski into the failing category. Integrating new pupils has not been helped by negligible new funding, and a fall in funding from $842 (pound;530) per child in 1995 to $695 (pound;438) this year.

Veteran teacher Janice Fischer has to fork out $400 to $500 of her own cash annually for "behaviour modifiers" such as videos, or candy, to pacify or captivate students.

Fischer commands much affection from pupils. When The TES visited, seven-year-olds planted kisses on her face and had to be shooed from the room. She points to one seven-year-old whose family faces life on the street. "He doesn't do well but likes coming here and the attention he gets from me." He says:"I'm mad because my mother's mad at me because she's mad at my father, he's left and we're three months out on the rent and going to be put out."

Staff know that pushing such children through their first high-stakes test at the age of eight will be tough. "It's a fairly unrealistic goal to think that every eight year-old is going to be at national norms by 2007," said Mr Bordelon, referring to one of No Child Left Behind's ambitions. "How did they come up with this stuff? Were they serving cognac at the meeting?"

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