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'No Child' Provisions Lagging in Region

The federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that students in low-achieving schools be allowed to transfer to better schools.

So far, for most, it's been an empty promise.

In Pennsylvania, only 603 of nearly 200,000 eligible students attended new schools this year. In New Jersey, 363 students transferred last year.

Nationally, there were only 31,339 transfers - less than 1 percent of those eligible - last year, according to an Education Week survey of 45 states.

Roadblocks include districts in which all schools are failing, officials reluctant to pay to bus students to new schools, sketchy transfer information for parents, and parents' loyalty to struggling neighborhood schools.

Likewise, relatively few students are getting tutoring from outside providers as promised by No Child Left Behind: fewer than 6,300, or about 4.2 percent of those eligible, in Pennsylvania this year, and fewer than 20,000, or about 30.3 percent, in New Jersey last year. Nationally, 218,031 got outside tutoring last year, but that's only 11.3 percent of those eligible.

Nonetheless, federal officials who enforce the law say they see progress. "Even if initially the numbers are not high... we are directing people's attention to creating new alternatives," said Nina Rees, head of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement. "We need to give public-school choice more time."

That's no solace for parents in districts such as Chester Upland in Delaware County, where failing schools resulted in a state takeover in 1994. The district has only one high school, where most students scored below state minimums last year: 68 percent of 11th graders scored below basic in reading, and 85 percent in math.

"I'm a frustrated mother," said Naomi Allen, whose son Patrick is a 10th grader at Chester High School. The school is so bad that "it's like signing his [academic] death warrant to send him," said Allen, who can't afford to move. "I'm hating the fact that I live here. The school is designed for failure."

Allen's son and others like him can't transfer to other districts because the law does not require the districts to take them.

School transfers are a key part of the sweeping 2002 federal law that aims to improve public schools by holding them accountable. It mandates transfers, tutoring, and even wholesale staff changes if the schools fail.

In Philadelphia, which has the highest number of failing schools in the state, 142,000 students were eligible this year to transfer, but only 135 did because there wasn't enough space at better-performing schools. Last year, there were 880 transfers.

For next school year, because some schools have improved, the district now has about 1,000 spots in 28 schools available for transfers. There were 987 requests; parents have been notified of the results, but the district does not yet know the final number of transfers.

In the rest of Pennsylvania, fewer than 500 eligible students switched to new schools this year.

Locally, in Delaware County's Southeast Delco district, 31 of 1,368 eligible students transferred; in the William Penn School District, 30 of 317.

In South Jersey, the state Education Department could not report the districts in which students were eligible this year for transfers. Last year, students transferred from schools in the Camden, Willingboro and Pennsauken districts.

In Camden, where 19 of 32 schools are listed as failing, only 29 students asked for transfers this year, according to Kimberlee Buell-Alvis, the district's affirmative action officer.

Other Camden students were among the 800 students in the state who went to new schools under a state program that allows students to transfer for any reason.

Alice Costello School in Brooklawn, Camden County, for example, took in 75 students this year, most from failing schools in Camden and Gloucester City. Folsom Elementary School in Atlantic County took in 130 students, some from failing schools in Camden County's Winslow Township.

When students don't transfer, it's often either because their parents don't want to abandon neighborhood schools or they lack information.

In Burlington County's 6,000-student Willingboro School District, two elementary schools are willing to take new students, but no one asked to go.

Parents are "very territorial - they're very loyal to their neighborhood school, and they see very positive things going on in their school that go beyond test scores," said Walter Poroszok, who oversees No Child Left Behind programs for the district.

Stephanie Robinson, who heads the Pennsylvania Parent Information and Resource Center, a Philadelphia-based group that educates parents about their options, said parents "often give up or are unable to use transfer options because they don't understand them."

The No Child Left Behind law requires that school districts spend up to 20 percent of their federal Title I allotment - money to help low-income students - on school transfer transportation and on outside tutoring.

But some school officials are reluctant to spend the money for those mandates, preferring instead to fund other Title I programs that districts already offer. Reading district Superintendent Melissa Jamula said that transfers and tutoring "draw away money that could be better spent directly on students through other educational programs."

Because it had few transfers and few students got outside tutoring, Philadelphia spent only about $2.8 million of more than $100 million in Title I aid that it received last year on transportation and tutors.

District officials say they offered those options to parents through 40 community meetings. "To say that this is a school district that wants to save dollars by preventing choice - that's just not true," spokesman Fernando Gallard said.

In 25 Pennsylvania school districts, including Kennett Consolidated in Chester County, Upper Darby in Delaware County, and about two dozen area charter schools, no transfers were offered because there are no other schools that students could transfer to.

Deborah Morrison, who has three children in the Philadelphia district, said that, among parents, "the consensus is that there is no school choice because few schools were on that list, and often, they're not doing very well themselves."

Some parents keep trying. And some succeed.

Karen Hunter, whose son was in kindergarten at Bethune Elementary in Philadelphia, a low-performing school, had vowed that he would not return there in the fall. "The whole school has serious problems, and I'm not happy with it. I want something better for him," she said.

Last week, she got what she wanted: a transfer to McCall Elementary, a school she said was "a step up from where I'm at now."

Hunter said she is "very relieved. I'm exhausted by the process - the bureaucracy is still very thick - but I'm happy at the end result. It worked for me."


dhardy@phillynews.com.

— Dan Hardy
Philadelphia Inquirer
2005-06-19


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