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NCLB Outrages

Failing Schools Fighting Back In Pr. George's

Nationwide, parents see through the NCLB school labels of inadequacy. Consistently, about 1 percent of students eligible to transfer nationwide elect to do so.

By Daniel de Vise

Last summer, Sherina Garner was offered a chance that doesn't come often in public education: a free pass for her daughter to leave the neighborhood school for a better one.

She turned it down. Carlisha Garner, 11, returned to Beacon Heights Elementary this fall, even though the Prince George's County school had missed performance targets for the past two years and, under federal education law, the entire student body was entitled to transfer out.

"From what I can see, my child is very bright, and she has been getting a good education at Beacon Heights," Garner said. She didn't want her daughter to switch schools "just because of a test score."

This fall, 10 of the 450 students at Beacon Heights exercised the transfer option offered them under the No Child Left Behind Act -- a mere trickle, compared with the number of students who have left other Prince George's schools in the same predicament in recent years.

Rather than accept the inevitable stigma of being on the wrong side of the law's school choice provision, officials at Riverdale's Beacon Heights and other embattled schools are trying a new tack: fighting back by marketing themselves to parents.

They promote the extra resources afforded to schools after their test scores repeatedly fail to meet standards, the easy proximity of a neighborhood school, the familiarity of friends and even their so-called inadequate results.

Four years into No Child Left Behind, many of the campuses entering the school choice process are actually fairly good schools. Principals point out that the standard for "adequate yearly progress," the measure of success under the 2002 federal law, is a bit higher each year. And a school can be labeled a failure if any one of several statistical subgroups misses the mark. For example, the test scores of special education students or those with limited English skills can open an entire school to transfers.

In Prince George's, the epicenter of choice in Washington's suburbs, the number of elementary and middle schools on Maryland's school improvement list -- signaling two years of missed academic targets -- rose from 55 last year to 63 this year. Yet, new transfers totaled just 612 this fall, down from 955 last year and 1,071 in 2004.

Consistently, about 1 percent of students eligible to transfer nationwide elect to do so. Maryland reported a small decline in transfers in the 2005-06 academic year, after two years of growth, and the number is likely to slip further this year.

Transfers were meant as an exit strategy for parents at chronically low-performing schools in low-income communities. The option is limited to schools that receive federal Title I funds, reserved for high-poverty areas. But the choice program is "swimming upstream" in many communities, said Ann Chafin, a Maryland assistant superintendent of education who oversees school improvement.

The difficulty lies in persuading parents to leave a neighborhood school, even for a better one. "The neighborhood school concept is a very, very big deal," Chafin said.

Two years ago, Beacon Heights Elementary was the toast of Prince George's, the only school in the county to receive a 2004 Blue Ribbon, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a school by the U.S. Department of Education.

Now, the school sits on the state's watch list, and parents are entitled to transfers. Weak reading scores in two programs -- special education and students of limited English proficiency -- caused Beacon Heights to miss its performance targets in 2005 and 2006. If just three more special education students had passed the state test this spring, the school would have averted transfers.

Letters went home over the summer to all parents, alerting them that they were free to leave and inviting them to a July 18 meeting.

Sherina Garner attended.

"I wanted to listen to what they had to say," she said. "But I already had a presumption inside of me" that Carlisha, entering sixth grade, would remain where she was.

The school choice option allowed Carlisha to attend any of three other schools, all of which had made adequate yearly progress. One, Bond Mill, is the fourth-best elementary in Prince George's, in terms of advanced performance on the statewide test.

But Garner knew about Beacon Heights's Blue Ribbon. She knew that test scores had not changed much since then and that the school's curriculum remained fundamentally sound. And Carlisha could walk to the school.

Three dozen parents attended the meeting. Some were Spanish speakers under the misimpression that they had to leave the school. School system officials explained how the transfer worked. Then they made their pitch.

They told parents that a transfer would not necessarily deliver students to a better school. One of the three transfer options, Carrollton Elementary, actually had a slightly lower percentage of students rated advanced on the 2006 Maryland School Assessment, and only Bond Mill had significantly higher scores. Beacon Heights was getting a brand-new after-school program and a pair of faculty support specialists, not to mention the army of extra help already provided under various state and federal programs targeting poverty and language needs.

"We pretty much have most of our children in this building covered for extended learning opportunities in grade 2 to grade 6," said Lynne Stuewe, the Beacon Heights principal.

At Bond Mill, a receiving school for Beacon Heights and several other schools under the choice program, Principal Justin FitzGerald has watched transfer activity taper off this fall. Just seven new students entered the school on transfers this year, the smallest number since the program began, leaving the transfer population at 25 in a school of 575 students.

Some falloff is natural, he said, after the explosion of transfers in the first years of the federal program. But he also notes that not one student has transferred in from Beacon Heights.

Five adults joined the 25 students in Carlisha's Beacon Heights classroom on a recent morning: a faculty support specialist, funded by school improvement money; a teacher and assistant, funded by special education; an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher; and the regular teacher, left with just a handful of students to supervise in a group exercise.

"In fourth grade, I was pleased," Garner said. "Fifth grade, I was pleased. And sixth grade, I'm hoping, will wind up the same way."

Prince George's accounted for 955 of the 1,590 school choice transfers approved in the 2005-06 academic year in Maryland, according to state data. The volume of transfer activity shows both a strength and a weakness of the school system, experts say: The county has a large number of schools performing poorly enough to trigger transfers but enough high-scoring schools to make transfers an appealing option to parents.

The ailing Baltimore school system, in contrast, had twice as many schools eligible for transfers last year but far fewer parents requesting them. In D.C. schools, tens of thousands of students at 81 schools were eligible for transfers last year. But only a few hundred students transferred. The problem, in both of those systems, is finding a school that is meeting its performance goals. One D.C. parent activist likened the transfer option there to shifting "the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

— Daniel de Vise
Washington Post


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