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Substandard Schools Could Face Exodus of Students

Facing a January deadline, Stamford Public School officials are bracing for a new and potentially expensive school choice option required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

As early as January, some elementary schools labeled "in need of improvement" for not meeting student proficiency standards will have to allow students to pick another school in the district to attend.

Each district must identify at least two schools not on the state list where students can transfer. Each school on the list for two years in a row is expected to use 20 percent of its federal Title I funds to transport students to other schools. In Stamford, that adds up to $400,000.

In addition, schools need to make sure they have proper staffing and space at other schools to accommodate additional students.

The Board of Education met Wednesday night to discuss its options. So far the state Department of Education has not named the schools that will have to offer school choice, because test results from last year's Connecticut Mastery Tests have been delayed by a scoring problem. But the district is preparing a plan that will begin when the schools are identified later this month.

"We have to be prepared to implement school choice as of the start of the second semester, which would be January '05," said Andreana Bellach, the board's outside counsel for legal compliance.

There are 10 elementary schools in Stamford that receive Title 1 funding. Hart, Rogers and Toquam are magnet schools and therefore would be exempt under state guidelines from being part of the school choice requirement. That leaves Davenport Ridge, K.T. Murphy, Northeast, Springdale, Stark and Stillmeadow as schools that could be identified as either schools where children would have the choice to transfer from, or schools they would transfer to.

Board member Dudley Williams, who works for the state Education Department, said districts around the country that have begun to offer school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act have not seen large numbers of transfers.

"There has not been an overwhelming stampede of students from one school to the other," Williams said.

But he added that many of those districts are more homogeneous than Stamford, which has a very diverse student body.

The district is not expecting to have a large number of students transferring in the middle of the school year. Administrators said they are confident that virtually no parents would want to disrupt their children's education in the middle of the year and would wait until next September to make a move, if they were going to do so.

Cost and capacity issues concern school board members and administrators the most. While about 2,500 students will probably be eligible for choice, the district has only 593 total spaces to accommodate them. Even so, to accommodate the transferring students, class sizes could rise from 20 to as high as 25 in the receiving schools.

Building an estimated six new classrooms each at the receiving schools would cost about $1.8 million, and funding new teachers and administrators would cost about $500,000 per school, Bellach said.

Failure to offer school choice would likely result in revocation of the Title 1 federal funds the district gets, about $2 million. Board members questioned whether the district might not be better off concentrating on improving student performance at the schools students attend now and forgoing the $2 million, rather than spending as much as $8 million in the first few years to provide school choice. The Cheshire school district has chosen that option, Williams said. But he cautioned that other federal grants also might come into jeopardy if the No Child Left Behind requirements are ignored.

Also hanging in the balance are possible changes to No Child Left Behind.

Many Republicans in Washington have resisted tinkering with the act because it is seen as a cornerstone of President Bush's education policy. But on the local level across the country, complaints about underfunding -- Stamford would get no more federal money to implement school choice, for example -- has led to a growing outcry to amend the act so that school districts can better respond to its requirements. Stamford school board members said they are hoping amendments will be passed that will alleviate the problems they foresee with school choice.

The school board plans more meetings in the coming weeks to come up with a plan to implement the school choice requirements.
Copyright 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc

— Tobin A. Coleman
Stamford Advocate


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