Few Parents Use NCLB Clout
Principal Ben Gauyan sat down last month to write a disheartening letter to parents at Midway Elementary School in Des Moines. Despite a strong gain in reading, the Highline district school's math scores again missed what's expected under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and Gauyan had to inform parents they could transfer their children to higher-scoring schools.
He braced for what might happen. But the phone calls and e-mails just trickled in. Six students have left, and Gauyan suspects some parents chose to transfer simply because other schools were closer to their day-care centers.
No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001, gives parents strong new rights, starting with the ability to remove their children from schools that receive federal dollars but fall short of the law's targets two years in a row.
Yet few parents are exercising those options.
Last year in Seattle, only 19 students requested transfers out of about 700 who were eligible. Close to 40 sought tutoring — available to low-income students if a school falls short of federal targets three years in a row.
In Yakima, 25 students out of a possible 3,000 sought transfers, and 20 pursued tutoring.
The Tacoma School District likely had the most transfers in the state last year — 240 out of a possible 3,000.
But in Toppenish, Yakima County, where three schools last year faced "corrective action" from their district — the third of five stages of sanctions for schools — the superintendent said no one asked to move.
One reason is many parents have faith in their schools, especially if their own children are doing well.
"I'm so aware of how well students can do here, and how many students we have that do well. We have some of the best teachers that I've ever met in my life," said Traci Fitzsimons, president of Midway's PTA.
"We send the letters," Toppenish Superintendent Steve Myers said. "We publicize it, just like the law requires. But our parents believe in what we're doing."
But there are other reasons, too. Parents often don't get the letters about transfers until school is about to start or has already started — not a good time to move a child.
The Seattle district just sent out its letters last week to parents at three schools — Rainier View and Whitworth elementaries, and those with children in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at the African American Academy.
Many districts also are lukewarm, at best, about No Child Left Behind sanctions and don't go out of their way to publicize them beyond the required letter.
And many parents may be skeptical about how the controversial law judges schools, or are just perplexed about the complex formulas that determine whether their school is labeled good.
"It's still confusing to me," said Holly Ferguson, assistant general counsel in Seattle and the school district's point person on the law.
No Child Left Behind has a simple goal and, on the surface, relatively simple requirements. In general, Washington's schools and districts must meet targets for students passing reading and math each year on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) to make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP.
They must hit those targets — which vary by grade and subject — for all students and for subsets of students, including five ethnic groups, low-income students and students in special-education and English-as-a-second language programs. If they fall short for one or more of those groups for two years in a row, they are labeled as "needs improvement," and face sanctions.
For schools, those sanctions start with students' ability to transfer, with transportation at district expense. For districts, the sanctions start with a requirement that the state offer as-yet-undefined "technical assistance."
Little clear cut
In practice, the regulations are much more complicated.
First, sanctions apply only to schools that get money under the federal Title I program, designed to support low-income students. Roughly half the schools in Washington receive Title I aid.
The other half can get labeled as "needs improvement" but will never have to offer transfers or tutoring, including high schools and middle schools in districts like Seattle and Kent, where Title I money is concentrated in elementary schools.
Second, there are many twists and turns in the formulas for what constitutes "adequate yearly progress." Schools can fall short of test-score targets, for example, but be in what's called "safe harbor" if they reduce the number of failing students by 10 percent.
Schools also don't have to hit the target exactly to make it, as long as they're within a range considered to be the margin of error. Schools must allow students to transfer if the schools miss any one target for two years in a row, but only if it's in the same subject both years.
Schools can also end up labeled "needs improvement" if they have too many unexcused absences, or too many students drop out, or too few students take the test.
Schools face sanctions whether they fall short with many groups of students or just one, such as math scores for special-education students, or reading for Latinos. That kind of nuance may not come across in a letter that labels a school as "needs improvement."
"I look at where we were last year and see the kinds of gains that we made. ... How do I say this?" Gauyan said. "I know there's a bar. The bar is where people should be going ... but part of my mind says, how fair is it?"
Progress despite decline
He points out that a school's test scores can go down and it still can be judged as making what the law calls "adequate yearly progress" if its scores remain above the target.
Overall, about 40 Washington schools must offer the option to transfer this year, about the same as last year. (Some cases are under appeal.) Close to 20 must also offer outside tutoring for low-income students.
Seventeen are in the next stage of sanctions, which requires the district to take corrective action that can include replacing some staff, implementing a new curriculum or extending the school day. (Thirty school districts are also in the "needs improvement" category and face the first step of district sanctions, which is an as-yet-undefined "technical assistance" from the state.)
Some districts do more than others to let parents know about the new rights.
The Tacoma School District, for example, sent out letters last spring to schools that it knew would face sanctions again this year. (Schools have to make targets two years in a row to shed the "needs improvement" label). That gave those parents several months to weigh whether to take the transfer option.
But many districts had to wait to see the results of last spring's WASL tests. Some sent letters in August, based on preliminary scores from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Others waited until appeals were decided or until the final numbers were out Sept. 1.
In Seattle, the district waited to notify parents until it had the final WASL numbers and had the letters translated into several languages. That took longer than expected, Ferguson said. Parents will have at least a week, but probably not much more, to decide whether to transfer.
Some districts, like Highline, also require parents to talk to the principal before they can get transfer forms so that he or she can explain why the school fell short and what the staff is doing about it. Other districts have public meetings to explain the law.
Few appear to go to the lengths that Dee Tadlock has seen in Alaska, where her company, Read Right Systems, offers reading tutoring. In Alaska, she said, there is a person at the state superintendent's office who works to sign up parents for services such as hers.
Read Right worked with 35 students in Alaska last year; in Washington, just one.
Tadlock says she understands why districts are less than enthusiastic. For one, they have to use some of their Title I dollars to pay outside groups to provide the tutoring. Second, she agrees that many of the outside organizations won't offer anything better than students get at school.
Short on effort
Yet others think districts should work much harder to let parents know what the law offers.
In the past school year in Seattle, it seemed few parents realized they could get free tutoring for eligible children, said Norman Alston, whose company, Alston House for Young Scholars, provided tutoring for about 15 students. The district didn't start the program until January, he said, although he was ready to offer his services in September.
Even in January, he said, awareness seemed low.
"I think there needs to be a huge drumbeat, someone on their bully pulpit, saying you must take advantage of these services, how can you NOT take advantage of these services?" Alston said.
There aren't many signs participation will increase this year in terms of transfers or tutoring.
Parents' decisions often come down to how their child is doing, said Kathleen Heaton-Bailey, principal at Dimmitt Middle School in the Renton School District, where 20 students left for higher-scoring schools last year. This year, she expects 20 more to leave.
"Parents would like to have their children in the community school. And it's, 'Well, maybe the school's not making AYP, but my kid's OK.' "
No rush to switch
In Seattle recently, some Whitworth Elementary parents were surprised to learn they soon would get letters telling them they could move their children. But none seems eager to do so.
"I would probably not transfer because of the teachers both my children have," Lashawn Boyd said as she dropped off a child for school. Next year, however, she said, it would depend on whether her daughter gets the same teacher again.
And when Fitzsimons, the Midway Elementary parent, got the letter about her right to transfer, she didn't worry. Her child was doing fine, and she believes the key to success is parent involvement. If other parents chose to transfer, she figured that might mean class sizes would go down.
"I thought, gee," she said, "This could work to my personal advantage."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359
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