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The principal of Elliott Elementary School will be reassigned next fall, a move district officials called "repugnant" but necessary to secure what could be millions of federal dollars.

"It is a direct result of the federal government infringing upon the local control of education, which we all find distressing," Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Susan Gourley said Tuesday.

Marilyn Moore, associate superintendent, who made De Ann Currin principal at Elliott 17 years ago, called it repugnant and horrifying.

"Or any word you want to use," she said.

Elliott is expected to be among five Title I schools - primarily elementary schools - in Nebraska identified as the lowest "persistently low-achieving" schools and therefore eligible for a portion of $17 million in federal money available to Nebraska.

Federal Title I money goes to support schools with high poverty rates.

There also may be middle or high schools on the list that don't receive Title I money, but it's still unclear how many or where those schools might be. The state Department of Education has not announced the schools it will identify as "persistently low-achieving" but expects to do so within the month.

Still, LPS officials are sure Elliott will be on the list based on their analysis and discussions with state education officials, Gourley said.

Gourley and Moore stressed that the decision to replace Currin - who has been principal at Elliott longer than any other current LPS principal has been at a school - had nothing to do with the "superb" job she's done.

"It's hard to imagine a principal with more mission and passion for the children than De Ann has for the children at Elliott," Moore said.

An outside evaluation team also recently praised Elliott School.

Instead, the decision was prompted by a U.S. Department of Education requirement for school districts that want a portion of $3.5 billion in stimulus money for "persistently low-achieving schools" nationwide. Nebraska is eligible for $17 million.

The hitch: The money is tied to four aggressive intervention models those schools must follow.

Two require closing the school and either reopening it through a charter company or sending students to other schools. A third involves replacing the principal and at least half the staff.

LPS is opting for the fourth and least intrusive - replacing the principal and addressing other areas of reform in the school.

The Nebraska Department of Education's definition of "persistently low-achieving schools" includes the 21 schools identified last year as needing improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

It also ranks schools according to student performance on reading and math tests over the past three years.

Those eligible for federal stimulus money will be the five lowest-performing Title I schools and any high school with less than a 75 percent graduation rate.

Also eligible for money will be the five lowest-performing middle and high schools that were eligible for but didn't receive Title I money.

Moore said the district considered not taking the money, but officials - as well as Currin - concluded the money would benefit Elliott students.

But Moore and Gourley said they see problems with the way schools are identified.

For one thing, the process assumes achievement is the same across the country, and it's not, Moore said.

Nebraska's lowest-performing schools, for instance, are performing better than schools in many other states, she said.

Also, test scores used are based on Nebraska's assessment method, which allows each district to create its own. Therefore, Moore said, ranking schools in different districts is meaningless.

That's changing now; the state is in the process of developing statewide tests.

The "lowest-achieving schools" system is now tied to stimulus money, but it could be a part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law.

Marilyn Peterson, data systems and federal programs administrator for the Nebraska Department of Education, said that except for replacing the principal, the reforms required by the federal government are things the state would advocate schools do to improve achievement.

Gourley said district officials have talked with Nebraska's congressional delegation about their concerns.

If a principal is ineffective, Moore said, he or she should be replaced. "But there is no one in the federal government that knows what kind of leadership De Ann Currin is providing, and there's lots of people in Lincoln, Nebraska, that do," she said.

The system is looking for someone to blame, Gourley said, and at Elliott, where 90 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches, there's no one to blame.

"I mean, who do you blame for poverty?"

Gourley said Jadi Miller, named the new Elliott principal, will do a great job, as will Currin as principal of Sheridan Elementary.

"The huge loss at Elliott is a huge gain at Sheridan," she said. 

Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.


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