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A $36 million federal grant to study ways to improve low-performing public schools, awarded to a noted research and development center at UNCG, couldn't have come a day too soon. Many public schools in Guilford County and throughout North Carolina are struggling mightily to meet the state's tough new academic and promotion standards. A record number of students are facing failure. They need help - and fast.

This spring 100,000 fifth-graders in North Carolina must pass standardized tests in reading, writing and math to be promoted to sixth grade. The next year third- and eighth-graders will have to pass a similar battery of tests to move up. The theory, of course, is that higher expectations will lead to higher achievement, that low-performing students and schools will improve under more rigorous testing and standards.The goal - to help every child achieve high standards - certainly is worth pursuing. Realizing it, however, is no easy matter. Statewide, nearly a third of last year's fourth-graders failed end-of-grade tests. Based on their performance, the state projects that an estimated 6,758 current fifth-graders will fail, more than triple the number retained last year. In Guilford County, 30 fifth-graders were held back last year; this year 200 or more risk being retained. A disproportionate number will be poor and minority students.

School administrators, teachers, parents, agencies and community volunteers in Guilford County are scrambling to provide at-risk children with the individual attention they need to succeed - through smaller classes, new teaching techniques, one-on-one tutoring, before- and after-school remedial programs and the like. Unfortunately, there is no model to follow to guarantee success, no research of any consequence to link reform to improvement. There exist only isolated cases of success.

Who better, then, to study school reform than the staff of SERVE, a center of research and knowledge that has devoted itself to improving public education throughout the Southeast for the last decade? The center is affiliated with UNCG's School of Education, recently ranked No. 1 in a performance review of teacher-education programs in North Carolina.

A recent report commissioned by the city's largest foundations noted that the quality of public schools in Guilford County is consistently singled out as a major roadblock to economic prosperity. It also pointed out that Guilford is home to a wealth of untapped resources in higher education.

We can only hope the federal grant fosters a mutually beneficial partnership. Our local public schools can provide the perfect laboratory for SERVE researchers. And schools everywhere should benefit from the findings.


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