In search of a local success story, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings visited Noble Avenue Elementary in North Hills during a quick trip to Los Angeles on Monday.
Some 51% of its students take advantage of free tutoring established through the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That's one of the top participation rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But tutoring services are offered only at schools that are flunking federal standards under the 5-year-old federal law. In fact, despite significant improvement, Noble "qualifies" for maximum sanctions, which could include a takeover by the state or by an outside entity, such as a private firm, and replacing the entire staff and principal.
So is Noble a success or failure?
"We're pleased but not satisfied," Spellings said. "Are they at the goal line? No. But few schools are."
Spellings toured two classrooms, effusively praised Principal Margaret EspinosaNelson and staff, and took part in a round-table discussion with education officials, parents and civic leaders.
The locals had questions, including a pointed one from new schools Supt. David L. Brewer about how many students have access to tutoring.
"The issue is: Do you have enough slots for everybody?" Brewer asked.
He knew the answer. L.A. Unified has 40,658 tutoring slots, funded by redirecting other federal aid to schools, for 310,000 eligible students. Any student at a so-called failing school is eligible, but the fast-growing tutoring program is already 93% full and on track to exceed capacity next year, forcing the district to turn away families.
Spellings did not respond directly to Brewer's question, but there isn't a criticism of No Child Left Behind that the well-traveled official hasn't heard.
The tutoring, she said in an interview, is not intended as a panacea for a school's shortcomings.
"What has to be provoked is some discussion of what's going on during the school day," she said.
The tutoring provides an opportunity for many failing students -- and for the companies that provide instructors. The district contracts with 55 services that provide 20 to 80 hours a year to a student for about $1,500. Some providers offer one-on-one help at home; others offer online tutoring with live help. Three tutoring services provide computers and let families keep them.
By a federal government count, 309 of 874 L.A. Unified schools are in "program improvement," meaning they've fallen short of hitting gradually rising academic targets mandated by No Child Left Behind. The goal is that 100% of students will be academically "proficient" by 2014. The current state standard is about 25%.
As a result, the number of failing schools is expected to rise sharply because the percentage of students who must be proficient will go up each year.
"We've got to pick up the pace -- no doubt about it," said Spellings, who brooked no talk of extending the deadline. "We've got to be smarter about how we meet the needs of these kids."
Some unsolicited suggestions were offered by the school board member in whose district Noble lies.
"There should be federal funding to reduce class size," said Julie Korenstein, who spoke outside a fourth-grade class of 35 students.
Korenstein also objected to requiring private firms to provide the tutoring. District teachers, many of whom Korenstein said would be highly qualified to tutor students, aren't allowed to do so because the school system as a whole is rated as failing.
"It's the privatization of public education," she added.
Spellings noted that her office has made a handful of experimental exceptions to the rules. But she repeated her recently quoted insistence that the No Child Left Behind Act is "99.9% pure."
For their part, despite their criticisms, district and state officials praised the law for focusing needed attention on the achievement gap between rich and poor, white and minority.
Noble's principal refused to make excuses. "It is fair," Espinosa-Nelson said. "My belief system is that every child can succeed, and my teachers believe that too."