Schools Fear Being Left Behind
A new option for some parents could turn into a nightmare for Triangle school systems this fall.
Students at high-poverty schools must be allowed to transfer if their schools fail again this spring to meet federal test standards.
To avoid that, 19 Wake County elementary schools must show gains in achievement, along with 11 elementary schools in Durham County, seven in Johnston and one elementary and one middle school in Chatham.
School administrators are drafting plans in case they fall short, as teachers feverishly work with students to get them ready for this year's tests.
"I don't have a crystal ball right now," said Keith Beamon, Johnston's assistant superintendent for instruction. "I can't really say how this will all work out."
The option to change schools is part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which measures schools across the nation on whether they are closing achievement gaps among demographic groups.
The law requires schools to group students into categories based on race, family income, English proficiency and other factors. If any group doesn't measure up on state reading and math tests, the entire school is considered deficient.
Only 47 percent of North Carolina's schools met the federal standards last year.
For most schools, there's no penalty for not passing. The exceptions are schools that get federal money from a program known as Title I, which helps schools with high percentages of low-income students, because they don't do as well, on average, as their more affluent peers.
Title I schools that fail to reach the new standards for two consecutive years must offer parents the right to transfer to other schools that are succeeding.
"We're under the gun," said Stephen Mares, principal of Joyner, a Title I school in Raleigh. "But this is what we have to do. That's the world we're living in now."
Middle class may flee
The fear among some Wake school leaders is that it will be the middle-income families whose children are doing well that will transfer out. Struggling, lower-income students would remain at high-poverty schools.
"My concern is that students who might benefit the most from the federal point of view would be the ones who are least likely to apply," said Wake school board member Bill Fletcher.
If too many low-income students apply, Beamon said, they could swamp other schools.
But this year's figures show that school districts might not have much reason to worry.
At the 18 schools statewide that had to provide parental choice this year, 337 of 7,200 students asked to transfer, said Bill McGrady, coordinator of federal programs for the state Department of Public Instruction. Of those who did, 300 were low income, he said.
Parents face a tight timetable, because results of this year's state end-of-grade tests won't be back until June or July. They have to be notified of their rights to transfer before the school year starts in August.
Policies thwart exodus
Wake has some policies that could make transferring less attractive. The county won't let students transfer to new schools or to schools that haven't met federal standards for at least two years in a row.
Leaders are trying to determine how far away a school can be while still being considered a reasonable choice for a parent.
Nola Allan, whose daughter attends Rand Road Elementary School in Garner, is skeptical that Wake will help parents much.
"I would think they'd find a way to weasel out of it," she said. "They could make the kids go to Knightdale or Zebulon instead of Garner."
Durham, which provides students transportation to nearly any school they want, might not have as much to worry about as Wake. For instance, no families requested a transfer this year from Eastway Elementary, the only school in the Triangle that had to provide choice as a result of its test scores.
McGrady said federal law gives few details, other than saying parents have to be given more than one choice and must be provided transportation to the school. McGrady said the courts or the state might have to interpret whether school districts are being reasonable.
In the meantime, schools are providing as much individual and small group instruction as possible to students below grade level. In many cases, schools didn't pass No Child Left Behind standards because of the performance of their learning-disabled and low-income students.
"We've really hit the ground running this school year," said Patty McCarty, a Title I reading teacher at Joyner.
Principals also have been talking with parents, stressing how well their schools are doing under the state's criteria.
Vickie Brown, principal of Jeffreys Grove in North Raleigh, met Tuesday with 25 parents to discuss No Child Left Behind. "Most parents love their school and want to stay," she said.
Barrie Shavlik has no intention of pulling her daughter out of Joyner, but she says she worries about what could happen if other families leave.
"I love Joyner," Shavlik said. "I hope we're not faced with that kind of decision here."
Staff writer T. Keung Hui can be reached at 829-4534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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