How one bad results year can create crisis

22nd August 2003 at 01:00

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

Chicago's Crane technical high school was riding high after the first exams used last year to judge schools under President Bush's new education law.

But the next set of students "relaxed"and sealed the inner-city school's fate. Crane joined 8,652 other schools on the 2002-3 failing list. It now faces sanctions until it brings test scores up to par.

The White House touts the test-based regime as a way to drive up standards, but many local educators say it fails to take account of the challenges schools face: judged by broader criteria than narrow academic ones Crane could be seen as a success. Catering to an impoverished African-American community, the 1,300-pupil school juggles academic with vocational training to prepare students for jobs - a more pressing priority for them than university. The school's "education to work" curriculum includes hotel management, car mechanics, and pharmaceutical training.

Students from beyond Crane's immediate catchment area flock to the hospitality courses, and even teachers entrust their cars to its fully-equipped vehicle repair shop.Ties with local businesses give pupils valuable work experience, while Crane's sporting prowess, not least as Chicago's reigning schools' basketball champions - a huge coup in this basketball-crazed city - is a source of considerable community pride.

Though Crane screens male students for weapons and police and security patrol the corridors, violence is not a big problem. Premises are well maintained and free of graffiti. There is strong community spirit: many parents attended Crane themselves and their involvement is encouraged.

There is also a creche for teenage mothers.

Missing maths and reading benchmarks was a "let-down", said assistant principal John Chana. But he said staff have their work measured against nearby "magnet" schools, which cream off the brightest pupils. "In many ways teachers here work a lot harder than in magnet schools," he said.

Crane has bought in outside tutors for the 40 to 50 students that requested them, under No Child Left Behind. But it had no takers to transfer to better-performing local school with bus fares re-imbursed by Crane. This underwhelming response is repeated across America.

Crane faces other woes, however, with vocational funding jeopardised by the Bush administration's stress on traditional education. Yet with unskilled jobs disappearing Mr Chana sees training for the workplace as more vital than ever.

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