Schools Accepting Transfer Students Feel the Pinch
Margie Rogers is a big fan of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
It allowed her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, to transfer to a Philadelphia school where test scores average about 100 points higher in reading and math than at her previous school.
Jasmine, who now attends Samuel Gompers Elementary in Wynnefield, is one of about 1,000 Philadelphia students who this year transferred into 20 better-performing schools within the district, thanks to the law.
"I love it. I wish I had her there from kindergarten," said Rogers, even though it means a 45-minute bus ride for Jasmine from her Cobbs Creek neighborhood. Her old school was only a five-minute walk. "She has shown more interest in school for the few months that she has been there."
Although Rogers is happy, the policy has placed new burdens on Gompers and some of the other receiving schools. Several of these schools, like Gompers, were sent 75 to 100 new students this year, accounting for as much as a quarter of their populations.
It also has raised questions about the fairness of holding those schools accountable for improving test scores - another requirement of No Child Left Behind. Gompers, for instance, still scores below the state average.
Paul Vallas, district chief executive officer, said this week that the influx of new students from lower-performing schools will be taken into account when test performance is calculated.
"We will work to make sure the schools are not penalized because they took a larger number of kids under No Child Left Behind," he said. "We'll be talking to the State Board [of Education] about this."
Educators also are divided on whether the transfer provision will make a difference for students who opted for a new school. And they wonder what will happen to the schools they left.
Gompers principal Phillip DeLuca, whose 400-student school is on a spacious grassy lot, has lots of questions about the new policy.
"Are we going to leave schools vacant? Are we going to build a second Gompers and open up 500 spots for school choice?" he asked. "Does that grass out there make it a better school? If they perform well here, is it because the principal's doing a good job? Is it because the staff is doing a good job? Is it because the child is in a different area? If that's really making a difference, then why can't we put those teachers and that principal and that grass in another area?"
Under the law, school districts are required to offer transfers to students in low-performing schools - where test scores fail to improve for two consecutive years. In Philadelphia, 176 of its 264 schools failed to improve, making more than 120,000 students eligible for transfer. Although only 1,200 spots were available in higher-performing schools, it was enough to accommodate all the requests.
The district had informally asked suburban districts to take students, but it was turned down in every case. The suburban districts said they were concerned about increased class size, the impact on test scores, cost, and the lack of space - some of the same concerns the receiving city schools had.
Some of the city schools accepting transfer students face larger challenges than others. Of 11 schools that took large numbers of transfers, five--including Gompers--showed no statistical difference in test scores between students who transferred and those who were already there. But in the six other schools, transfer students arrived with lower test scores, a district analysis showed.
William Levering School, a K-8 in the city's Roxborough section, received 121 transfer students with significantly lower scores on average.
"Maybe 30 percent of the [transfer] kids are on par with the others," said principal Mary Randall. "About 70 percent are in need of additional interventions. That is our biggest challenge, trying to find those interventions."
The 434-student Levering also saw a swing in racial makeup with the arrival of mostly African American transfers. Last year, its student body was 46 percent white and 46 percent black. This year, white students make up about 30 percent and black students 60 percent, she said. Educators at Levering are helping students adjust to the cultural change. Some of the new African American students had never gone to school with white students before, she noted.
In the Northeast, Fox Chase Elementary School principal Gina Hubbard said her school has had few problems adjusting to its influx of 75 students - about one in every five students is new. But she wishes that the 368-student school could have received a smaller number of students the first year, perhaps 25.
On average, the transfer students had lower scores than the school as a whole. "We were fortunate that they were not all below basic [testing level], but it did put a strain on us," she said.
Even though new Gompers students may not have shown a difference in test scores, many require additional supports for behavior and academics, educators at Gompers said. Not all needs are reflected in standardized test scores.
"We got over 100 students. Any time that happens to a school, you have a tremendous adjustment to make," said Patricia Snead, a fifth-grade teacher. "We need to socialize some of the children so they understand the Gompers culture. It is different than the other schools or their parents wouldn't have sent them."
Second-grade teacher Susan Weinberg agreed: "Some of them come from environments that are a little more aggressive. The children tend to handle problems in a much more physically aggressive way than we've had at Gompers."
But the school is adapting, said Judy Glaser, a special education teacher and teachers union representative. She, like other members of the staff, made all the difference, said principal DeLuca, who arrived in September. Discipline improved under his leadership.
"So far, it's working for us," Glaser said.
Hearing of concerns about increased burdens on receiving schools, Vallas noted that they got $180 extra per new pupil, and more books and furniture. Many got new teachers to keep class size low. At Gompers, class size in grades K-4 is 21 or 22 students, lower than last year. In the fifth grade, class size remains at about 30 students.
But some schools, such as Gompers, have not been able to hire new counselors or psychologists to deal with the additional students who in some cases are bringing behavior and academic challenges. Gompers has only one counselor.
DeLuca is also concerned that only 30 percent to 40 percent of the students can stay after school for the district's extended-day program. The district only offers busing for regular school arrival and dismissal.
Vallas said the district was looking for funds to add late transportation. The federal law does not allot funding for it, but Levering School is using some budget money to pay for tokens for students who want to stay.
In many cases, the transfer students travel up to an hour or more to get to their new schools. A small number have given up and returned to their neighborhoods as a result, Vallas said.
Third-grade Gompers teacher Susan Newmark, who has nine transfer students in her class of 23, said the experience for transfer students could be invaluable.
"It's harder for us [as a staff]," she said, "but I think it's going to be positive for them all the way around."
Federal law puts pressure on schools
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES