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Troubled School Rejects Student's Transfer, then Relents

Chris Cibelli asked to transfer out of troubled James Lick High, but the answer was no.

With 115 students already having left the East San Jose campus -- a number equal to a quarter of the freshman class -- co-principal Rick Esparza wanted to hang onto Chris.

As it turned out, Cibelli won his transfer this week -- just days before classes begin -- because federal law requires that certain chronically low-performing schools allow students to move to higher-performing schools, usually in the same district. Now the 15-year-old who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist will be able to attend Independence High, which has a space technology program.

``I'm feeling pretty good,'' Chris said. ``It's all been fixed, and Monday I'm registering for sure.''

The incident reveals one of the challenges inherent in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: How do you rescue a struggling school when so many students, often the more ambitious, want out?

``That's the youngster that's going to raise my test scores,'' said Esparza, part of a turnaround team that arrived six months ago hoping to lift James Lick from the lowest levels of test performance. James Lick is one of 18 schools in Santa Clara County where test scores have remained so low that students are allowed to transfer. ``It's hard to take, that there's a law that says your child has a right to move on.''

Esparza and his colleagues are working with the East Side Union High School District and the county to avoid a death spiral. A county study two years ago showed parents seldom pull their children from struggling elementary and middle schools. But parents are more likely to pull their children from a low-performing high school, and in the past year that trend has continued.

Because James Lick is the only high school in Santa Clara County facing the sanctions, administrators hope to use it as a model for rescuing schools that founder in the future, said Linda Aceves, director of school assistance services.

``It's sort of like a vicious cycle or a self-fulfilling prophecy'' when parents start to pull their kids from a school, said Aceves, who is helping the school improve its academic program. She said that while James Lick's new leadership team is already showing results in better test scores, ``perception takes a while to change. It will take a lot of PR, and a lot of looking at the data to show the improvements.''

John Wright, Chris' stepfather, feels the family needed to focus on Chris' future rather than the school's survival.

``The Bible states that if a tree does not put off good fruit, that tree must die. This is how I feel about James Lick,'' he said. ``Maybe this tree deserves to die.''

But school leaders are fighting to save it, with some success. An official at the Santa Clara County education office said James Lick's testing gains this year probably are in line with state goals. Administrators will know for sure at the end of the month. If the school did meet its goals, it will have to post one more year of gains before it can be released from sanctions such as transfers.

The improvements won't come soon enough for Chris, an A and B student whose transfer to Independence High was approved hours after the Mercury News called district and county administrators to ask about his case. He is already halfway through high school and said his classes so far have not given him some of the projects that he hopes will prepare him for a career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

``Their space technology program there, and the fact that they have a planetarium on campus, are probably what got me the most,'' Chris said of Independence. ``I want to go to college and major in physics and astronomy.''

Esperanza Zendejas, superintendent of East Side Union, said she hopes students like Chris choose to stick with the school. If they want to leave and act within the deadline, though, they must be released.

``They're not supposed to force the students to stay if the parents want them to go,'' Zendejas said. ``But we do want the principals at James Lick to do some public relations with the parents so the students do not want to leave.''

When students do transfer, they can't always attend their first-choice school. Sought-after Evergreen Valley and Piedmont high schools are at capacity, though some others in the 11-school district have room.

In James Lick's case, 115 students, mostly incoming freshmen, have transferred this year, the majority to Mount Pleasant and Independence high schools. Others have had their transfer requests denied because they missed the Aug. 8 deadline; students allowed to transfer after that date were newcomers to the school's attendance area.

The exodus of students will have real consequences for the school, beginning with fewer teachers.

``We divide the population of the school by 30 to begin looking at the number of teachers that we would assign to that school,'' said Art Darin, the district's chief academic officer. James Lick will have three or four fewer teachers than it would have had if the 115 students had stayed, he estimated.

Darin said the remaining students might have a more limited choice of elective classes like art and music.

Contact Jon Fortt at jfortt@mercurynews.com or (408) 278-3489.

— Jon Fortt
Mercury News


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