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NCLB Outrages

Many Qualify, Few Take School Transfers

Tami Paxton had a hard time making sense of the letter that went home to parents this summer.

The good news was that Moon Lake Elementary, where Paxton's son is entering fifth grade, had gone from a B to an A, according to the state Department of Education.

The bad news was that it was also one of 12 schools in Pasco County that could be penalized for failing to meet federal testing standards - namely, something called "adequate yearly progress."

Because Moon Lake's disabled population didn't make the one-year test score gains required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Paxton had the right to transfer her son to another school, the letter says. The district would even provide transportation.

"I just ignored it," said Paxton, whose son is in the program for gifted students. "I'm not unhappy with the school."

Paxton was not alone.

Only 32 of about 8,800 eligible Pasco County students - or less than a hundredth of a percent - applied to transfer out of schools that federal officials say are "in need of improvement."

And no school saw a wave of students itching to get out. The most seeking to transfer from one campus to another was at 965-student Chasco Elementary, where six opted to go to either Cotee River or Seven Springs elementaries.

Why the low interest?

Perhaps one reason is that Pasco already has a strong school choice option that allows parents to apply to send their children across school zones if it is needed and if there is room at the receiving school.

"No Child Left Behind didn't change anything that Pasco wasn't already offering," said Terri Mutell, principal of 711-student Marlowe Elementary in New Port Richey, where three applied for transfer.

If parents wanted to leave, they already had an out.

Monica Verra, supervisor of Title I programs for Pasco County, said she sees the low response as validation of parental trust: Parents believe in and like their neighborhood schools.

"I would just say that they're satisfied with the schools that they're in," Verra said. "Most people don't say I want to go to a school across town."

In fact, a 2003-04 parent satisfaction survey the district released last week shows the overwhelming majority of Pasco parents are satisfied with their children's schools: 90 percent in elementaries, 80 percent in middle schools and 74 percent in high schools.

Because the adequate yearly progress mandate applies only to schools that receive Title I funds - federal dollars targeted for schools with large populations from low-income homes - students could feasibly transfer from a Title I school into a non-Title I school that is in the same academic predicament, or worse.

The fact is, 77 percent of Florida schools did not meet adequate yearly progress this year. But only a fraction of those face the kinds of federal penalties that Moon Lake, Chasco and Marlowe face, and that's because they get Title I dollars.

While the state Department of Education issues grades to schools based on overall test scores, the federal law requires students to show measurable gains in reading, math and writing according to their student subgroups: race, disability, limited English proficiency and economic disadvantage.

That's why half of Florida's schools got A's this year, but almost 80 percent are, according to the federal government, needing improvement.

In Pasco - as in most of Florida - the student subgroups that tended to fall short of the federal mandates were those with disabilities and those for whom English is a new language.

After the deadline for transfer requests closed in Pasco on Wednesday, workers in the district's Student Services Division breathed a sigh of relief that the response wouldn't require a complete reconfiguration of the district transportation schedule.

"We're happy that the numbers are so few," said Al Bashaw, division director.

— Rebecca Catalanello
St. Petersburg Times


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